For The Love
of Letters
A 21st-Century Guide to the Ar t of
Letter Writing
This book is dedicated to the graduate: Kathryn Taylor Stroup, MD.
My inspiration. My support. My cousin. My friend.
My first and ever-faithful pen pal.
Yes, There’s Still a Need for Letters
Letter Writing and the Internet
l CHAPTER ONE: Letters as Gifts
The Love Letter
Great Expectations
Crush Confessions
Remember Mom
How to Confess Your Undying Love While You’re Dying
by John Keats
The Erotic Letter
Describing “Down There”
Position of Power
Open Book
How to Undress Your Lover with Your Words
by James Joyce
l CHAPTER TWO: Letter Therapy
The Good-bye Letter
Closure: A Melodramatic Analogy
A Tale of Two Letters
How to Say Good-bye Before Going to the Guillotine
by Marie Antoinette
The Flaming-Tongue Letter
Angry Letters Aloud
How to Tell Your Father You’re Leaving His
House and Never Coming Back
by Edgar Allan Poe
l CHAPTER THREE: Return to Sender: Letters that are Hard
to Write and Harder to Receive
The Breakup Letter
How to Break Up with Someone Very Carefully
Watch the White Lies
How to Break Up with Someone You Really Like
How to Tell a Man You No Longer Love Him
by Sarah Bernhardt
The Unauthorized Love Letter
One-Shot Deal
Reread and Reconcile
How to Write to Your Immortal Beloved
by Ludwig van Beethoven
l CHAPTER FOUR: Letters of Gratitude
The Thank-you Letters
Thank You for the Thank-you
Split-second Letters
How to Express Your Utmost Gratitude in Ways
You Never Thought of
by Emily Post
l CHAPTER FIVE: Difficult to Say, Even in a Letter
The Apology Letters
How to Apologize to a Girl for Getting Her Name
Wrong in an Apology Letter
How to Apologize for Missing a Lunch Date
Never Too Late
How to Apologize to Your Husband for Being Short
with Him as the Housework Continues to Mount
by Katherine Mansfield
The Sympathy Letter
Religious Context
How to Express Genuine Regrets to a Woman who
Lost Five Sons During the Civil War
by Abraham Lincoln
l CHAPTER SIX: Letters of Change
The Letter Requesting an Act of Amnesty
Letter-Writing Guide for Amnesty International USA
and the Urgent Action Network
How to Write the Women’s Right’s Revolution
by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony
The Letter that Changed It All
The Letter to the Editor
Missing the Mark
How to Tell Americans What It’s Like to Live in the
Middle of World War II
by the Editors of French and British VOGUE
l CHAPTER SEVEN: If We Must, We Must
The Cover Letter
The Resignation Letter
Professional Thank-you Notes
How to Approach a Problem in a Businesslike Manner
How to Secure a Business Deal that Will Educate the Masses
by Andrew Carnegie
The Recommendation Letter
How to Politely Refuse to Write a Recommendation
How to Write a Recommendation for Your Offspring
How to Write Recommendation Letters According to Collier’s
Cyclopedia of Commercial and Social Information (1892)
About the Author
About the Publisher
Yes, There’s Still a Need for Letters
The art of general letter-writing in the present day is shrinking until
the letter threatens to become a telegram, a telephone message, a
—Emily Post, E T IQU ET T E , 1922
“Do you know what ROFL stands for?” my mother asks. I can hear
in her voice that she already knows the answer and is ready to boast
about it.
“Rolling on the floor laughing!” Her animated reply practically
sends her into the act she just described.
“How about LOL?”
“Laugh out loud!”
I felt silly for not knowing that one. “Well, if I had seen it written I
would have known.”
She continued, “TTYL? Talk to you later. JK? Just kidding. GTG?
Got to go.”
My mother is mastering this new language Г la acronyms so she can
communicate with my cousin Kimi. Thirteen-year-old Kimi is a quick
draw—the fastest text messager east of the Hudson River. I imagine
Kimi trapped at a family event without her cell phone, unable to
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thumb-tap her way into the latest gossip circling among her friends—
a tragic sight. I could tell her it won’t always be like that, but she’d
never believe me. I could also tell her there once was a time when
thirteen-year-old me had to endure family gatherings without instant
access to my friends. Occasionally I could sneak off and use the phone,
but it wouldn’t take long before the “Samara, where are you?” horn
started to sound. Kimi knows nothing of this. She can sit quietly in the
room, seemingly with us, but really she’s at a friend’s house or the
mall—talking about newly formed crushes and horrid homework assignments.
It didn’t take long for my mother to savvy up and accept if she was
going to get to know the newly minted teenage version of her niece,
she would have to do it on Kimi’s terms—via computer or handheld
gadget. Truthfully, I don’t know what I find more amusing: Kimi’s incessant IMing and texting or my mother’s foray into the new experience. She confesses, “It took me forever to get BRB (be right back) and
BBL (be back later). Kimi uses these a lot, and I’d be stranded typing,
�Kimi, what are you doing? Kimi, where are you? Kimi, why are you
coming and going so much?’ ”
It may seem as though I’ve set this up to criticize the tenacity of
technology and “kids today,” but that’s not the case. I completely understand and appreciate the need for shorthand and speed. If Friar
Lawrence had had e-mail, Romeo and Juliet might have lived happily
ever after. If Philippides had had his cell phone on him, he could have
called in the good news of the Athenian army defeating the Persians
instead of running twenty-some miles back to Athens only to die of
exhaustion when he arrived.
My concern is, though, that what we gain in speed we lose in
language—and, just a reminder, we are the heirs of a resplendent language. English is curvaceous, complex, and beautiful. Fluent and
fierce. She is the lover you will always adore but will never fully know
because there’s too much to know. She is a true seductress—devious
and overt, offering endless possibilities. With her I could tell you that
you look gorgeous or that you look exquisite or that my body lost its
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breath when I happened upon you. When we encounter her placed
in uncommon and alluring order we find inspiration and purpose. We
find connection with ideas, with emotions, with people we know,
with people we will never know, and with time periods that we must
learn from and understand.
So I say yes, let’s be efficient—but let’s not squander our inheritance. Let the technology soar and improve, but let’s be careful not to
assume the latest and greatest inventions will be around forever. They
most likely will not. Let’s set time aside and allow our lovely language
to bask in a place that has already proven its staying power: on paper.
We must spread her out so that she can dazzle and breathe. Like all
living things, if she does not breathe she will die.
How then do we keep her alive and healthy? We go back to the
beginning. Before BlackBerries, text messages, instant messages, cell
phones, fax machines, computers, typewriters, telephones, and telegraphs. We go back to a time when there were two things: language
and paper. For writers, that combination equaled novels and articles.
For the lovelorn, it equaled poetry. For mathematicians and scientists,
it was a place to work out equations and take copious notes. For monks,
it was a place to copy scripture. But for all these types, as well as the
man on the street and the woman by the window, the person who just
had a message to send, language plus paper equaled letters. And letters
eventually equaled evidence. Evidence that they existed. That they
breathed. That they had good insights and bad days. That they loved.
That they suffered. That they longed. That they had moments of certifiable insanity. That they were selfish. And that, sometimes, they were
satisfied. We must make arrangements for our descendants to discover
us in such a candid way.
What brought us closer to the Holocaust but the diary and letters of
a headstrong teenager who was forced to experience the changes of
her body, frequent fights with her father, and the confusion of first
love all in the confi nes of a stuffy attic? I remember reading years ago
that one clever journalist had named Anne Frank Hitler’s greatest enemy. What is the New Testament of The Bible really, but the selected
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letters of a few passionate young men excited to spread the message of
their newfound faith? What woman doesn’t swoon at the idea alone of
a love letter written by Casanova or Valentino? And what person
wouldn’t find fascinating new insights into their favorite writer, philosopher, or politician when reading a collection of their letters?
On a recent trip to Nashville, I visited a historic home called the
Belle Meade Plantation. Originally built in 1853, the astonishing home
is filled with antiques and an acute sense of lives lived long ago. We
were told that the house was restored to its original paint colors because they had found letters written by the mistress of the home delineating her plans to decorate. The mistress also wrote about the daily
goings-on in her daughter’s life, which at one point involved entertaining twenty-two young gentlemen suitors who came to call (at the same
time!). We might not find our everyday lives too fascinating but our
great-grandchildren will, and I’d much rather have them unfold a
dusty sample of my enduring words than Google me.
Now, it’s understandable if your children’s children’s children aren’t
the first thing on your mind in the morning—so don’t write letters
for them ( just make sure you leave letters for them to find). Write letters for the people who are on your mind. Who are always on your
mind. For the new love and the old friend. Thank the coworker who
went out of her way to help you get adjusted. Empathize with your
neighbor who just lost her son. Appease your wife after an unnecessary fight. Tell your husband about all the ways he still turns you on.
Letters give messages backbone. They deliver what’s written and they
silently confess, “To me, you are worth the inconvenience of writing
this letter.”
Letters not only solidify history and fortify everyday events but
they enact political change. Amnesty International (amnestyusa.
org) has used letters to plead on behalf of human rights for more
than 40 years, which is especially important in countries where Internet access is not readily available. The Global Aids Alliance website
( also asks its visitors to write letters to local
government officials and heads of state. They offer e-mail as an opx
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tion but suggest that printed letters send a stronger message. They provide form letters but also implore, “Please write your own letter—your
words are more powerful than a form letter!”
And that is what I’d like you to take away from this book—an appreciation for how powerful your words are. How powerful our language is and how effective the two can be in tangible form. Letters
instigate understanding, change, and closure. Letters are a chance for
all of us to live well beyond our allotted years. They can and will affect
the recipient, but what’s oftentimes greater (and more surprising) is
the effect letters have on the writer—who may be coming face-to-face
with his or her thoughts and feelings for the first time. Letters have
been performing acts—both ordinary and extraordinary—for several
hundred millennia and I’d like to make sure they continue to do so.
I’ll admit my fear of losing letters may be unfounded. As you saw
above, Emily Post had the same fear in 1922 and letters are still with
us, to a certain extent anyway. Just to be on the safe side, though, I’ll
sit Kimi down and explain everything to her, and she can explain what
the heck BICBW* means.
*Because I could be wrong
Letter Writing and the Internet
What printing presses yield we think good store.
But what is writ by hand we reverence more.
—John Donne
I was born just in time. It was late 1970s and one electronic era was
passing the torch to another. I have memories of my father’s eighttrack player, and I sang along to Sesame Street albums (I’m talking records here). I remember answering the phone before caller ID. I know
what a busy signal sounds like. I know what the Dewey Decimal System is. And I recall life when computers were around—we had an
Apple Tandy—but they were certainly not the necessity they are now.
I was born just before the window shut; letters had a chance to play a
purposeful role in my life before technology really persisted and
threatened to eliminate them for good.
Let’s fast-forward now twenty-five years past my dad’s eight tracks. I’m
in a café with my laptop. I’m between jobs and very antsy. Most of my
energy goes into figuring out what I’m going to do next, and any creative
juice I had left is channeled into my half-finished novel, a source of
never-ending frustration. The unofficial rule is about to kick in—when a
writer is restless, which is most of the time, the crazy ideas come.
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My crazy idea was the sum of recent events and of me trying to create an occupation for myself. I asked: If I could do anything, what would it
be? I answered: I would sit in my castle in the clouds and write letters. People
would come to me from far and wide with their tales of love and loss and I would
help them find the words they were looking for. The recent event that inspired this was my roommate had asked me to help her write a letter
to a guy she was dating, and she was very happy with what I came up
with. Now all I had to do was walk off my cloud and make it practical,
so in true 21st-century form I turned immediately and ironically to
the Internet to save the art of letter writing.
When I was ready to launch the Web site—the
letter-writing service of my dreams minus the castle and the clouds—in
April 2005, reactions were mixed. Some friends smiled politely out of
kindness, others didn’t try to hide their bewilderment: “Huh?” I was
outside with my laptop in Bryant Park and a man asked me what I was
working on. I told him and he said, “That’s actually brilliant.” I think he
was just trying to sleep with me. I ended up telling a friend of a friend
at happy hour, and she caught me completely off guard by squealing with
delight and congratulating me on having such an original idea. I was
grateful for her enthusiasm but didn’t have the heart to tell her that writing letters for other people is far from original—the concept is as old as
letter writing itself.
Throughout history every culture and civilization has employed the
art of scribes and letter writers, as the majority of the population did
not receive a formal education and could not read or write. This practice worked its way well into the twentieth century. A friend of mine
who lived in Izmir, Turkey, in the mid 1970s has vivid recollections of
the letter writers who sat outside the post office and transcribed the
lives of the illiterate. A day in the life of a letter writer is illustrated
perfectly in the beginning of the movie Central Station—Golden Globe
winner for best foreign language film in 1998. Dora, a retired schoolteacher, works as a letter writer for some of the 300,000 people who
pass through Rio de Janeiro’s main train station each day. The movie
opens as her customers confess their lives. One woman is in tears as
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she dictates a letter to her lover who is in jail. An older man wants to
write to someone who betrayed him and thank him for it while he
wears an unmistakable expression of forgiveness on his face. An eager
young man waxes poetic about his girlfriend’s hot body and what he
wants to do to it. Meanwhile, the letter writer stays stoic and writes
what they ask, refusing to involve herself emotionally in their lives
even though their emotions are all over the table. In the DVD’s director’s commentary it is noted that some of the people in the station
asked if they could be a part of the film and dictate their real letters.
Director Walter Salles permitted this and says that it ended up altering the texture of the story and bringing a reality to it.
Not all letter writers are out to help the illiterate; some are out to
help the inarticulate. Playwright Edmond Rostand’s most popular
play, Cyrano de Bergerac (1897), tells the story of Cyrano—a man with
an exceptionally large nose—who decides he’ll never win the heart of
his beloved, Roxane, because of his looks. He ends up helping the
handsome but tongue-tied Christian pursue Roxane by writing letters
to her on his behalf. This story experienced a 1980s-style revival in
the movie Roxanne (1987), starring Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah.
Here, Cyrano is renamed C.D. and Christian is simply called Chris. In
the end Roxanne realizes it was C.D.’s sweet language she fell in love
with rather than Chris’s good looks.
For those of you who remember the short-lived yet significant series My So-Called Life, the show’s finale had a similar plot. Irresistible
Jordan Catalano employs the troubled but brilliant Brian Krakow to
write a letter for ingГ©nue Angela Chase. Jordan, needing to apologize
and not knowing how, laments out loud, “It’s gotta be written down so
I can’t screw it up.” Brian says no at first but does end up writing the
letter, as it’s his only outlet to express his true feelings for Angela. In
the end this story leans more toward real life than Roxanne. Angela
knows Brian wrote the letter. She goes to Jordan anyway.
In Roxanne, when Chris first asks C.D. to write letters for him C.D.
replies, “That’s lying.” And Chris says, “Not if you write what I feel.”
That’s how I justified writing letters for people on my website—they
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gave me the ingredients, and I made the cake. What surprised me the
most was that no one said, “Lady, are you for real?” They e-mailed me
and launched right into their stories. I’m not exactly sure what made
me feel qualified to do this. It was partly because I was a professional
writer but more so because the range of human emotional experience
is not that vast—we can all identify with each other to a certain degree. I knew I could draw inspiration from my own emotional history
to articulate their lives. And that’s how it went, they gave me stories,
I gave them words, and it was up to them to deliver the message. Some
probably copied it into their own hand, while others left them typed,
and others e-mailed. Now is probably a good time to tell you that this
is not an anti e-mail book. I’m a fan myself and have received many a
moving letter via e-mail. For all the arbitrary e-mails that go back and
forth, the passionate, meaningful, sometimes even hurtful ones make
their way in there. Print these out. I mean it; these are your letters.
Print them and put them in a shoebox. I have a friend who told me she
stopped writing in her journal altogether because printing her e-mails
told tales well enough. I leave room for e-mail in many cases throughout this book, but do suggest that print letters trump e-mail in certain
situations and (believe it or not) vice versa.
Among those who adamantly disagreed with my business venture
were two students from my alma mater, Duquesne University. There’s
guaranteed amusement in the student newspaper doing a story on you.
“I don’t understand why you wouldn’t just do it yourself,” said junior
forensic science major Sara Huber. “I mean grow some balls and write
a letter.” Junior sociology major Becky Wilker agrees. She finds the
whole Web site to be quite odd. “It’s pretty ridiculous,” Wilker said,
“A letter is supposed to be personal.”
In defense of my customers, I’m certain no one was writing me
because they lacked metaphorical balls (the women obviously lacked
physical balls). Some were just out of practice and others were never
in practice. One woman wrote to me and started with “I am a terrible
writer . . . I am an Equity Trader. Numbers r my thing writing no.”
Also, the site was launched to promote letter writing itself as much as
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me as the letter writer. If someone who hadn’t been thinking of writing a letter saw my site and thought, “I can do this myself. I don’t need
her.” Then I genuinely say, “Mission accomplished!”
Now, I’m never above admitting I might be wrong, so to my collegiate critics I say, “Ladies, perhaps you are correct and writing
letters for other people is absolutely absurd. In which case, my time
is best spent here with this book where I can tell you all that I’ve
1 Letters as Gifts
Treasure these few words till we’re together.
Keep all my love forever.
P.S. I Love You
—Lennon & McCartne y
We are taught as children that the best gifts are homemade—that’s a
lesson we should never unlearn. What comes with a handmade gift is
not only the gift itself but, more important, the invaluable time the
other person put into it. All relationships need positive reinforcement
on a regular basis, and priceless gifts are much more effective in accomplishing this than expensive ones. Letters fit the priceless bill
perfectly not only because of the time but also the raw emotion and
thought they require. If we take it to an extreme, I can say with certainty that a relationship where nothing but diamond bracelets and
gold watches are exchanged would pale in comparison to a relationship where nothing but letters and roses stolen from the neighbor’s
yard are exchanged. Not that you shouldn’t be grateful for a diamond
bracelet—you know what I mean.
This isn’t true of just romantic relationships either. Since the people
who love us the most—mom, dad, sister Sue, and aunt Veronica—
tend to be the people we take for granted the most, it never hurts to
send an unexpected reminder that you think the world of them. It will
be more cherished than the NASCAR tie you bought your father for
his birthday. I promise.
I am pleased to announce that of all the letter requests I’ve received
on my Web site, love letters are the highest in demand. I expected
apology letters to be number one or even breakup letters, but no,
love letters conquer all. Admittedly, I was surprised yet ecstatic because it made me feel that all is well with the universe. There are
plenty of people walking around in love and looking for new ways of
saying old things.
When I first launched I received an immediate outpouring of support from my family and friends. Though I think most
of them thought, What is she doing? The first two considerate acknowledgements came from my cousin Jennifer and her husband, Graham.
Thoughtful gestures come naturally to these two and they both
touched base with me unaware that the other was doing so. Jennifer
sent my Web link to her friends and colleagues and gave me their feedback. Meanwhile, Graham took on the much-appreciated responsibility of being my first customer by requesting an eighth-anniversary
letter for his lovely wife.
Practicing on people I know was an ideal way for me to get my feet
wet. It also helped that Jennifer is an easy person to write a love letter for, since she gives people no choice but to admire her. She attended
Boston College with the intention of being an English teacher but
changed her mind and made getting an MBA from Harvard Business
School appear effortless. She then went on to be a full-force woman in
Manhattan’s old-boys-club financial world and somehow found time
to bear three children (all boys!). On top of this she happens to be a
knockout—a blue-eyed, wide smile, she-couldn’t-possibly-have-threechildren knockout. Upon receipt, Jennifer obviously knew I wrote the
Letters as Gifts
following letter. But she also knew that Graham wouldn’t dispute any
of it and appreciated, no doubt, his motion of support toward me.
The Love Letter
May 2005
Dear Jennifer,
We went into this eight years ago knowing to expect the unexpected, and we certainly haven’t been disappointed. As far
as life’s surprises go, I’m still amazed at the way you balance
our marriage, your career, and loving our boys with beauty
and grace. You’ve accomplished so much since we first met,
and I’m so proud to have participated in your three greatest
accomplishments with you. I’m even prouder to know that
our sons are being raised by a bright, ambitious, and faithful
woman who continues to set exceptional examples for them—
mothering three kings is no small task.
On a more selfish note, being seen with a slender, beautiful woman on my arm never EVER gets old. Thank you
for embodying all things wonderful, and thank you for taking such good care of me. In other words, I love you. And,
believe it or not, I love you more than I did when we first
got married.
There’s still so much left for us to do, but I thought you
might like to know (or be reminded anyway) that I’m your
biggest fan. Thank you for taking this journey with me. Happy
Your-not-so-secret admirer, husband, and friend,
Be Specific
Imagine, if you will, a room—a gathering—of all your old flames. I
mean all of them—Gina from the fourth grade, Chris the sophomore
soccer player, and hot, handsome Joe from last night. Now, let the
sheer terror of this situation roll off your back—it’s just a daydream.
Let’s say that at some point you wrote love letters to all of them, and
they are now going to stand in a circle and, one by one, read your letters aloud. My question is: Do your letters all say the same thing? Do
you jump from relationship to relationship carrying with you the same
compliments, same romantic turns of phrase, the same run-of-themill repertoire?
If you do, then don’t. You’ve got a new and exciting person in front
of you and they deserve new and exciting tokens of appreciation as
unique as they are. Grant each person a version of your love that no
one else will ever have access to. Even though things won’t always
work out, each relationship is significant and special in its own right
and should be treated as such. Let this be reflected in your letters. So
that if you ever did end up in the scary circle scenario it wouldn’t be as
awkward. With every letter read it would be clear that you noted and
highlighted everyone’s individual eccentricities. It would flatter them
all to know they possess affections from you that no one else has ever
or will ever receive.
I’ll be the first to proclaim that there is no formula for love letters.
Close your eyes and feel is the best advice I can give, but if you need
help kick-starting the process, here are a few suggestions:
l How to Start
The first sentence of just about any written
work is always the hardest. It is, however, slightly easier with
love letters because there’s no introduction required—you
can get right to the point. One quick sentence and you’re good
to go. Try starting with a sense of urgency, “There’s something very important that I need to tell you.” Confessing a
state of helplessness—both mentally and physically—also
works well, “I’m sitting here unable to focus and barely able to
breathe, as thoughts of you are taking on a life of their own.”
l Bring on the Adjectives
Make a list of all the things you adore
about the other person. For example: Bright, thoughtful,
Letters as Gifts
driven, daring, beautiful, breathtaking, I-can’t-stop-lookingat-you! You get the idea. Then use this list to craft the letter.
Wrap a few sentences around each word. Like so: (Adjective =
striking) “You know I didn’t hear a word Chuck said when we
were at his party because you were in that baby blue dress and
everywhere I turned I could see you out of the corner of my eye.
My God, you’re a striking woman.”
l Disguise Your Letter
Camouflaging love letters as thankyou letters always gets a good response. Thank them for the
things they do, “Thank you for washing my car last weekend.” But also thank them for things they have little to no
control over: “Thank you for making every day a truly unique
experience—you are an unending mystery.” Or “Thank you
for looking so radiant when you first wake up. The sight of
you is the perfect start to all my days.”
l Ask Questions
I find that clever, rhetorical questions work
well as a flattering technique: Could you be any sexier?
Could I look any better being seen with you? Could you be
any sweeter? How could I possibly stop myself from falling
for you?
l Take Note of the Time
Pointing out the length of a relationship is an effective tool. If you’ve been together for a
short time, write “I can’t believe my feelings have grown so
strong in only four months.” If you’ve been together forever,
then that certainly deserves a nod: “Well, would you look at
that? After thirty years I think it’s safe to say we beat the
l Fake ’Em Out
Please, forgive the reference I’m about to
make: There’s a Michael Bolton song, “Said I Loved You . . .
But I Lied,” which sounds harsh, but the lyrics continue,
“Said I loved you, but I lied. ’Cause this is more than love I
feel inside.” This misleading concept translates well to letters.
You could write something like, “You, for some reason, find
it necessary to distract me from work and from volleyball on
a regular basis. Thank you so much for doing that.”
l Counteract
the ClichГ©s There are common compliments
that we all need to hear—pretty eyes, lips, hair, naturally goodlooking, talented, smart, funny, etc. Of course use these, but
try to use them in a fresh way. Play with the words—it’s fun.
Well, I think it’s fun. Instead of writing “You have beautiful
eyes,” try “I’m helpless in the presence of your electric eyes.”
Instead of “I love your smile,” try something like “Your smile is
my favorite distraction.”
l For
Better or for Worse Every relationship has its sore
spots. Some spots are huge issues and others are minor irritations that you eventually learn to laugh about. I suggest using
the latter in your love letters. Let them know you love them
with all their imperfections attached. For example: “You are
still my favorite person, despite the pile of trash that always
seems to be at my feet when I ride shotgun.”
l Role Reversal
Think of a few compliments that your love
may not be used to hearing because of their sex. You can tell a
woman you admire her for her strength, courage, determination, and bulging biceps (okay, maybe not that last one). And
I’m a fi rm believer that every man deserves to be told at least
once in his life how beautiful he is, especially by the one who
loves him.
l Have fun
You’re not in trouble. They’re not in trouble.
There is no trouble. There is only satisfaction and delight.
Letters as Gifts
If you find yourself sitting down to write a love letter, congratulations! You’re in love, and that is a good place to be*.
Signing Off
вњ‰ Yours through time and eternity, Civil War General George
Armstrong Custer (1839–1876) ended a love letter to his wife,
Elizabeth, this way.
вњ‰ Always, with undying love, yours, An affectionate ending
from Irish poet Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) to Lord Alfred Douglas in 1893.
✉ Lover, Lover, Darling, Signed by Zelda Sayre (1900–1948)
to F. Scott Fitzgerald in the spring of either 1919 or 1920.
✉ Always, You could also try, “always” by itself. This is a favorite of mine—one simple word that says a great deal.
вњ‰ With (something), With love, with admiration, with adoration, with endless devotion.
вњ‰ Love, Simple, yet always effective.
вњ‰ Love and luck, A cute way to end a platonic love letter. I saw
this at the Country Music Hall of Fame—a Patsy Cline (1932–
1963) letter on display. It was a one-and-a-half-page, handwritten letter to one of her fans. Now that’s a grateful celebrity! On
a side note, one of Patsy’s albums was entitled Sentimentally Yours
In love letters it is the words and the emotions supporting those words
that are the stars of the show, so you’re welcome to take grammatical
liberties. Keep in mind that grammar is a tool used to make thoughts
come across as clearly as possible and also to insert spoken-word inflections into the written word, so don’t set grammar aside to the point
where some of your sentiments are lost.
*Unless you’re writing a love letter for someone who does not feel the same way. See Unauthorized
Love Letters on page 68.
I once dated a man who would e-mail me and consistently misuse
all of his homophones (words pronounced alike but different in
spelling and meaning). He’d tell me he got stuck outside in the pooring rain, or he’d ask weather or not my interview went well. Truthfully, this boy blue my mind and I, of coarse, was so taken with him
that I found his mistake absolutely adorable. So again, grammatical
inconsistencies in love letters are easily forgiven and oftentimes endearing.
How to Send
Whether handwritten or typed, my vote here is that the letter ends up
on paper—something to hold on to. I have no problem with typed letters because they’ll take on a nostalgic charm of their own someday. I
find old letters written via clunky typewriters as enchanting as a lover’s poor penmanship. When it comes to delivery, the element of surprise is important. Slip it into a startling spot—the kitchen table, the
lunch bag, the driver’s seat. I think it’d be fun to hand it to them before they get in the shower. If you’re away from your love for a while,
then you have the perfect opportunity to do it the old-fashioned way
and mail it. That being said, I fully understand that love lends to many
out-of-control moments, so if you can’t wait and you must send your
sentiments immediately, then e-mail away. Who am I to stop love in
If You Receive a Love Letter
Be grateful and enjoy. Certainly let your enthusiast know you received
the letter and how much it means to you (I hear sexual favors are widely
accepted as a thank-you), but I wouldn’t return with a giant gesture
right away. That implies that you’re doing it because they did it first,
and love letters are most effective when given out of the blue.
One very sweet moment in great 1980s cinema comes at the end of
Flashdance—Nick is waiting outside for Alex after her big dance audition and hands her a bouquet of roses. She takes one of the flowers out
Letters as Gifts
of the bunch and hands it back to him. The moral here is, return a big
gesture with a small one. Then wait your turn to surprise them with
an equally moving love letter when they least expect it.
Great Expectations
’Tis true that I emphasize the element of surprise in giving love letters, but I realize that’s impossible on certain occasions. There are
designated days—Valentine’s Day, birthdays, anniversaries, etc.—
when your significant other is harboring high expectations for an amorous gesture. The good news is, there are infinite ways to put new
twists on old words and actions. If you always deliver glorious gifts,
then catch your love off guard by adding some length and thought to
the card—or giving a card for the first time if you usually don’t. If
you’re a frequent card giver then try highlighting a few details about
the other person that you have noticed but never mentioned, or stress
your favorite features in a way you never have before.
You could also resort to a humorous approach as my ex-boyfriendstill-very-good-friend, Jesse, did a few years ago. He bought me a �You’re
a Nice Cousin’ Card for Valentine’s Day. It was clever and much appreciated. FYI: His nickname for me used to be “Noodle.” Let there be no
mystery to this nickname—I bear a striking resemblance to a long,
skinny strand of pasta.
My Dearest Noodle,
I thought this card was hilarious. I bet they don’t sell many “I
love you cousin” cards on V. day, except maybe in West Virginia. Anyway, I am sitting here foolishly trying to capture
my feelings for you in this card. If I had a thousand cousins in
love cards, I couldn’t describe my feelings for you.
I can only express to you that this has been the best year of
my life. You are the most engaging person I have ever met.
You continue to impress me and make me fall in love with you
every time we are together. I am closer to you than I have
been with anyone on this earth. You are my best friend, lover,
entertainment, obsession, solace, comfort, object of my most
intense desire and owner of my heart. And for that, I will love
you forever. Happy Valentine’s Day!
Love always, Your
Crush Confessions
I’ve had a handful of people write me and say they’re dating someone
new and want to send a letter confessing their interest and intrigue but
fear coming on too strong. Initially, this was difficult for me because
I tend to play no-holds-barred when writing about feelings, but a little
self-discipline never hurts. After enough of these requests I dubbed
this type of letter the “crush confession.” It’s the little sister of the love
letter—a breezy note telling that you’re standing on comfortable
ground and anticipate an onset of stronger feelings.
A good way to start these is to get it all out and write everything
you feel. Yes, I said everything. Next, take out your red pen and edit
away. Remove everything that fits into the “coming on too strong”
category—be optimistic and save it for later. Then send along your
watered-down declaration. The following crush confession is the summation of a few that I’ve written:
Dear Chris,
I wanted to drop you a quick note and come clean about
something. I have admired you for all the time we’ve known
each other, but I am really enjoying getting to know you in
this new romantic context. One of my favorite things to do is
be myself, and it’s nice to spend time with someone who
makes that so easy.
I look forward to hearing more of your travel stories and
spending an obscene amount of time kayaking, which I’m so
Letters as Gifts
glad you enjoy as much as I do. You have such a welcoming air
around you and I didn’t want you to think it went unnoticed
on my part. I know we’re taking things slow, as we should
because we’ve both been burned before, but I thought you
might like to know how much fun I’m having.
If You Receive a Crush Confession
Crush confessions are great for a status check. If you’re dating someone and they hand over one of these, then they’re telling you that they
think you’re a good catch and are gearing up to move forward. If you
receive a crush confession and feel the exact same way then I suggest
you put this book down and go kayaking. If you do not feel the same
way, it’s courteous to tell them that—lest they fall any further. I know
it seems obvious but all too often people are flattered by the idea that
someone likes them and they think, I’ll see what happens, rather than
admit they don’t share the same mind-set. Whoever wrote the letter
gave you fair warning about their feelings and you should return the
favor. If you decide to write your response to them it could go something like this:
Dear Karla,
Thank you so much for your very thoughtful note. You are
absolutely the best kayaking partner I’ve ever had, and I too,
have enjoyed our time together. That makes this more difficult to say, but I think you should know that I’m not on the
exact same page as you. Our romantic endeavor crept up on
me, and I wasn’t fully prepared for all that it would entail.
My uncertainty is not your problem, and I don’t want it to
become your problem. With that in mind I think it’s best to
put the brakes on this. I can explain further if you’d like, but
I’d rather do so in person. If I’ve misled and disappointed
you, I apologize.
Remember Mom
Don’t reserve love letters solely for the people you love erotically,
they equally affect the people you love platonically. And since love
letters are seldom expected in a friend/family relationship, with the
exception of special occasions, you’re almost always guaranteed to
catch them completely off guard when you deliver. The same rules in
writing these love letters apply—obviously you’re just going to leave
the romance out.
I know a woman who writes letters in a journal to her young
daughter. In the days leading up to the child’s birth she expressed her
uncontrollable enthusiasm about how she couldn’t wait to meet her.
Then she told her all the details of her birthday and what it was like to
bring her home from the hospital. I imagine she keeps this going with
big moments such as walking, talking, first day of school etc. And
what a wonderful gift this book of letters will be to present to her
daughter for sweet sixteen or graduation day.
My sister once surprised me with a love letter. We were sitting on
the beach—I was reading and she was writing in her journal, or so I
thought. As we walked back to the house she handed me a note. I had
no idea what it was. Turns out, it was one of the most beautiful love
letters I’ve ever received, and I’ll cherish it always:
Circa 2000
To Whom It May Concern (Her birth name is Samara):
I have so many dreams and so much passion that I don’t truly
know how to express. Sometimes I think it’s artistic passion,
but I never really try to be artsy. Sometimes I think it’s sexual
passion, but you’re my sister and that doesn’t involve you. My
basic point is that I want you to know you are an inspiration to
me. Your honesty is refreshing, your inner beauty is inspiring, while your outer, breathtaking.
Letters as Gifts
Although, speaking of honesty, I must admit at times I want
to staple your mouth closed, but that is the joy of sisterhood.
You are the only person in the world who shares my blood
while caring enough to pick my brain for creative specks.
You know me, and not many people do. Thank you for
that. For persevering through our younger days and achieving
our current standing.
With hope and awe,
How to Confess Your Undying
Love While You’re Dying
BY J O HN K E ATS ( 1 7 9 5 –1 8 2 1 )
Sketch of John Keats in 1918 by Charles Brown
Few literary legends ascended and descended as quickly as John Keats.
A poetical prodigy, he posthumously earned his place among the fabulous five—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats—poets of
the Romantic Era (1785–1830). His first volume of poetry was published when he was twenty-two and his third and final when he was
twenty-four—already suffering from the tuberculosis that would take
his life a year later.
In 1818 he fell furiously in love with a young woman named Fanny
Brawne—it has been noted that he wrote his best poetry between
1818 and 1819 when they were first courting. He wrote her more than
three dozen letters, which she held on to until her death in 1865. It’s
remarkable that he was sick, well aware that he was dying and yet still
able to muster up such a lively declaration of love:
M ARCH 1820
Sweetest Fanny,
You fear, sometimes, I do not love you so much as you wish? My dear Girl I love
you ever and ever and without reserve. The more I have known you the more
have I lov’d. In every way—even my jealousies have been agonies of Love, in
the hottest fit I ever had I would have died for you. I have vex’d you too much.
But for Love! Can I help it? You are always new. The last of your kisses was
ever the sweetest; the last smile the brightest; the last movement the gracefullest. When you pass’d my window home yesterday, I was fill’d with as much
admiration as if I had then seen you for the first time. You uttered a half
complaint once that I only lov’d your Beauty. Have I nothing else then to love
in you but that? Do not I see a heart naturally furnish’d with wings imprison
itself with me? No ill prospect has been able to turn your thoughts a moment
from me. This perhaps should be as much a subject of sorrow as joy—but I will
not talk of that. Even if you did not love me I could not help an entire devotion
to you: how much more deeply then must I feel for you knowing you love me.
My Mind has been the most discontented and restless one that ever was put into
a body too small for it. I never felt my Mind repose upon anything with
complete and undistracted enjoyment—upon no person but you. When you are
in the room my thoughts never fly out of window: you always concentrate my
whole senses. The anxiety shown about our Loves in your last note is an
immense pleasure to me: however you must not suffer such speculations to
molest you any more: nor will I any more believe you can have the least pique
against me. Brown is gone out—but here is Mrs. Wylie—when she is gone I
shall be awake for you.—Remembrances to your Mother.
Your affectionate,
J. Keats
Letters as Gifts
I was tempted to call this the “lust letter” section because I’m a big fan
of alliteration and that has an alluring sound, but I decided it’s too
misleading. Lust alone usually doesn’t lend to substantial acts such as
letter writing. It’s a fleeting emotion—it reaches its boiling point
quickly and evaporates soon after it’s satisfied. It’s unlikely you’d ever
take the time to write a sexually charged letter for someone you only
lusted after as these letters are filled with very personal and potentially embarrassing information that you’d only want someone you
trusted to have access to. This is not to say lust is always a devious
emotion—when it’s accompanied by the melodious orchestra of love
it finds a more meaningful and extended purpose.
It’s a common assumption that love and lust are ardent enemies,
and they are rarely recognized for working together and even keeping
each other alive. After all, we must credit lust and desire for pushing
us past the platonic point and encouraging us to take romantic interest
in someone. Then once a relationship is established, love is what holds
you together when lust takes one of her many leaves, and when love is
at its most challenging sometimes a moment of unassigned passion can
reignite your union.
The idea of love and lust working together as partners came together long ago in the Greek word eros, hence erotic, which literally
means sexual love. In order to experience complete eros, you need to
lust after the one you love. For married couples and long-term partners, sex is the relationship within the relationship that comes with its
own set of joys and complications. If all is going well except for the sex
then all isn’t going well. On the flip side, if sex is the only link you
have, then you don’t have an authentic bond. Oftentimes if it was the
thing that brought you together, it can also be the thing that drives you
apart. It’s easy to overlook the importance of sex because outside of a
relationship it’s readily misused, but on the inside it is the cornerstone
connection. As time goes by this connection becomes more difficult,
and therefore more important, to make.
Here’s the part where letters can come in handy. Sex is tricky because while you want to get to a point where you know exactly what
your lover likes, you don’t want things to become so familiar that
they’re trite and routine. Putting your passions on paper is a great way
to update your lover on your latest fantasies and to praise them for the
many ways they please you. There are two types of erotic letters: The
creation and the re-creation. The creation letter is the fantasy letter.
You’re telling your devoted one what you’d like to happen—what you
saw in a movie or dreamed up in the doctor’s office and can’t wait to
try. The re-creation is the exciting recollection of a successful sexual
escapade you can’t stop thinking about.
Truth be told, I’ve never written an entirely erotic letter—I’ve
included erotic sentiments in love letters and also good-bye and
break-up letters (hey, why not?). I include them here, however, for
two reasons: 1) I think they’re important. 2) I plan to write them. As
I said, these types of letters tend to support relationships and I haven’t
been in one in longer than I care to admit. So the letter you are about
to read is the only letter in this book that is completely fabricated.
Since so much of sex is fantasy-based anyway, I’m hoping you’ll let me
get away with it.
Now for the fun part: The pseudonym for my pseudo man is Oliver.
He’s roughly 6'4" and has that killer dark brown hair/baby blue eyes
combination and washboard abs (obviously). We’ll meet running in
Central Park one day. He’ll be in town because he’s teaching Atmospheric and Planetary Science at Columbia, which is what he does
when he’s between projects for NASA. Oh, I’m sorry, I must’ve gotten
carried away.
Anyway . . .
Letters as Gifts
The Erotic Letter
What got into you last night? Whatever it was I’m glad it got
into me too. My hopes of a late night tryst fell asleep with
you on the couch. I admitted defeat and headed to get ready
for bed. Needless to say I was in a state of complex confusion
as my dress went up, panties came down, and I found myself
holding onto the headboard for dear life. I was the victim of
a series of surprises—my favorite being when you insisted
me on top of you and as I started to spread my legs you slid
down quickly to lick me from beneath. As much as I loved
when you did that I must admit I found it slightly ( just slightly)
more pleasurable when we switched places and you were
on top, leaning back to play with my pussy while kneeling over
and letting me suck on your sweetness. You know I never
liked that position until I realized how much you enjoy the
view. I imagine you like the noise too—my would-be moans
muffled directly by your cock. It must sound like torture
when I come.
And aren’t you kind to note that one of my favorite places
is standing and facing against the wall (like some naughty ingénue) where you can taunt so easily—leaving one hand free
to do its will with my tender nipples and lucid clit while the
other holds my hands high above my head and ensures my
wrists are cinched and in a certain amount of pain. You took a
while to relieve the pain last night—motioning to put yourself inside several times and deciding not to, knowing that I
drip wetter and ache more—then and now—with every tease.
I feared you might be gentle about it, but you sent me straight
to my tiptoes and gasping for air when you finally did push
yourself inside.
Afterwards I collapsed in exhaustion. This is my preferred
brand of exhaustion by the way, much better than the generic
stuff. I’m meeting Julie after work for a drink. I won’t be
Be Specific
It’s easier to be specific with erotic letters then any other kind of letter
because you’re an expert on your own pleasure points and you strive
to be an expert on your lover’s. Now I know what comes so easily to
the mind doesn’t always translate to words. Some erotica reads like
poetry and some reads like porn, it depends on what you and your
partner prefer. A good way to start is by structuring your sentences
around your senses:
l Sight
“It’s not that I don’t love our frantic tumbles, but at
some point I am going to insist that you stand in front of me
and undress. Slowly. Painfully slow. So that I’m longing for
you to do it faster as you politely refuse. Make my eyes drink
down every section of your extraordinary body.”
l Sound
“Did I tell you how hot it was when you lowered your
voice on the phone the other day? I know it was because people had walked in, but it turned me right on. Please do that
more often. Lower your voice to a sexy whisper and tell me
how hungry you are.”
l Smell
“It’s hard to be in polite company when you have the
scent of strawberries circling your neck—it makes me want
to dig in and devour you.”
l Touch
“I lost my balance as soon as your hands started to
explore. I closed my eyes and didn’t care to resist being held
Letters as Gifts
captive by the warmth, the wetness, the pain, and, ultimately,
the pleasure.”
l Taste
“I have been thirsty all day, craving just one lascivious
lick of your savory skin. You are undoubtedly my favorite flavor.”
Signing Off
Erotic letters can end the same way as love letters or not at all. James
Joyce didn’t sign his erotic letters other than his name. There is also
no closing for the scandalous letters in Penthouse Letters. If you still
want sum up the sexual sentiment try these:
вњ‰ Restlessly, Longingly, Passionately,
Some of my favorite ad-
вњ‰ Until next time, or until tonight, until tomorrow, until tomorrow morning, until next Thursday after work but before
soccer practice, Okay, I’ll stop.
The last thing anyone will care about when reading this is the placement of your commas and semicolons. I think you could even get
away with not capitalizing the first word of every sentence. Spellcheck if you want (especially if you use words like lascivious) and
then you’re good to go.
How to Send
Like love letters, I think these are best left on pillows, nightstands, top
of the laundry pile, and any other ordinary place that could use a dose
of excitement. If you’re writing a recreation letter regarding last night
and want to send it off immediately, then e-mail it. However, I caution
you against sending these to a work e-mail account. Let Yahoo, Hotmail, and AOL have all the fun.
If You Receive an Erotic Letter
If it’s the first erotic letter you’ve ever received it can be understandably awkward. Like sex itself, it’s not always easy to be naked in front
of someone for the first time, and reading something equally as unabashed might take some getting used to. Also though, as with sex,
you will get used to it, and hopefully get to the point where you’re
willing to respond. Unlike love letters, I don’t think there’s a need for
lag time here. Respond as soon as you like with a letter or, better yet,
with the fantasy-come-true.
Describing “Down There”
Now comes the question what words are best to describe the act
and the parts. The madame of erotic short stories, AnaГЇs Nin, often
referred to a woman’s womanly area simply as her “sex.” As in “Then
his hand slipped down to the little valley around the sex. I was
growing lax and soft.” I’ve always found something mysterious and
poetic about that. She usually referred to a man’s penis as his penis,
but I think the use of the simple word sex could work there as well.
I lean toward mixing sweet analogies with inappropriate ones—
the raunchy, raw words that when used out of context are made to
insult and degrade. But we’re not out of context here—we actually
couldn’t be more in context, and there’s an undeniable pleasure in
freely using words that have been deemed forbidden. If you can’t
disassociate these words with their degradation then fear not, there
are other options:
l Private Part Pronouns
You don’t always have to name the
specific body parts you’re referring to. You could just name
yourself or the other person and give a few other context
Letters as Gifts
clues. For example, “I’d much rather you spend your afternoons deep inside me,” or “I get excited at the mere thought
of tasting you.”
l Forbidden Fruit
Fruit is always a reliable and appropriate
analogy. In her short story “The Queen” Anaïs Nin wrote,
“Her nipples were hard like berries under the touch of the
brush.” Fruit acts as a perfect parallel, not only for breasts, but
also for the look and taste of female lips—lips of the mouth as
well as lips of the sex. There is a bit of a double standard here
as it works well for describing the female genitalia—cherry,
strawberry, apricot, peach, pear, pomegranate—but not so
much the male. I can’t describe the penis as a banana and be
expected to keep a straight face. If you can, then a banana split
it is.
l Animal Instinct
When we break it down, it’s our sex drives
that render us mere animals—making them a fitting comparison. Before we called it doggie style, James Joyce referred to it
as “a hog riding a sow.” King Solomon also relied on our friends
in the animal kingdom for effective erotic descriptions, “Your
breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that feed among
the lilies” (Song of Solomon 4:5).
l Speaking of Solomon
I’d like to give a shout out to an ancient king who used flora, fauna, and food to write luring
erotica for his young bride: “You are stately as a palm tree
and your breasts are like its clusters. I say I will climb the
palm tree and lay hold of its branches. Oh may your breasts
be like the cluster of the vine, and the scent of your breath
like apples, and your kisses like the best wine that goes
down smoothly gliding over lips and teeth” (Song of Solomon 7:7).
Position of Power
The good news is with these letters you have the power to cure your
lover of certain self-consciousnesses. For example, in the movie
Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, a naked Bridget gets out of bed and
tries to get dressed with the covers still wrapped around her. Her
beloved Mark Darcy asks her what she’s doing and she says, “I don’t
want you to see my wobbly parts.” He replies, “I happen to like your
wobbly parts.” She then proudly throws the cover to the floor. DISCLAIMER: Best not to use the expression “wobbly parts” unless
you’re British.
The bad news is you also have the power to make your lover more
self-conscious. Be careful not to fantasize beyond what you know
them to be capable of. For example, don’t put pressure on them by
saying (in a creation letter) something such as, “you lasted for well
over an hour,” or “you came in the missionary position.” We all want
certain things to happen but have little control over whether they can
or will. Describe the setup in your letter, but not necessarily the finish, as that depends on so many things. Now if the setup and the fi nish go unexpectedly well, then be sure to celebrate that in a re-creation
Also, try not to bring up a known point of contention like “I
walked in one day, and I was so excited to find you watching porn!” If
there’s something you’d really like to try and your partner is severely
opposed to it then you should discuss it. It’s unhealthy for you to
privately harbor a fantasy as it could manifest itself into you thinking you need outside sources to satisfy it. Try finding a variation that
you’re both comfortable with. It’d be irresponsible of your partner to
completely ignore your fantasy, and it’d be irresponsible of you not to
try and understand why they’re uncomfortable with it. Ah, relationships.
Letters as Gifts
Open Book
Here’s my plan: Someday, if and when I’m married, I’m going to keep
a journal of all my sordid fantasies. I will leave this journal wide open
in obvious places for my husband to find and hopefully enjoy. I really
only would do this with a husband, by the way, as I fear that with a
boyfriend it might end up on the Internet in the event of a bad breakup.
Also, it’s not something I feel we would necessarily need in the early
years but perhaps the later ones. I’ll write to a third-person party to
make him feel as though he really has stumbled upon something he
shouldn’t be reading. I think I’ll write to the young Brigitte Bardot. I
imagine the Parisian beauty would like nothing more than to sit in her
ivory tower and advise me on my sex life. Once aforementioned husband has all the information, he is welcome to fulfill my fantasies at his
own will, and he is certainly more than welcome to write back and
include his own.
I share my plan with you in case you’d like to use it. I like the idea
of the journal playing middleman because, while experts emphasize
that you have to communicate to your partner what you do and don’t
want, there’s still a part of all of us that just wants our lover to know
what we want without us saying anything. This is one way to accomplish that. Write your desires down, forget about them and one
day they just might come true. As sexual beings we evolve. We change.
Things that once repulsed us now intrigue and excite—always a
good idea to let your lover be the first to know about such developments.
How to Undress Your Lover
With Your Words
BY JA ME S J OYCE ( 1 8 8 2–1 9 4 1 )
A portrait of the artist as a young man—twenty-two-year-old James Joyce in 1904
Photograph courtesy of SUNY Buffalo
Writing this biographical section is bittersweet for me. Bitter because
I cannot show you the letters that I’d like, and sweet because what’s
keeping me from reprinting these erotic epistles is the fact that that
letters are alive and well and still causing controversy. I wasn’t sure
exactly what my search for historic erotic letters would yield. It ended
up yielding a set of early twentieth-century letters so graphic they
could easily offend and perturb early twenty-first-century readers.
One day whilst surfing the net, I came across some steamy missives
supposedly written by James Joyce. Joyce, born in Ireland, is often referred to as the greatest writer of the twentieth century—his major
works include Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939). I was skeptical as
to whether the letters were real or not, so I hauled over to library, sat
Indian-style on the floor, and thumbed anxiously through The Selected
Letters of James Joyce. I was thrilled to find they were not only real but really explicit. Every obscenity made an appearance—oral sex (standard
and 69), anal sex (he was delighted to discover she liked it “arseways”)
the F word, the C word, and a few disturbing fetishes. The best part:
These are love letters. They were written to a woman named Nora Barnacle who Joyce had met and fallen in love with in 1904. Five years later,
in 1909, the two were living in Trieste, Italy, with two children. In October of that year, Joyce went to Dublin for business and while still away
in December he and Nora began the erotic exchange (again, they’re
writing these five years and two children into their relationship). Her
letters were never found, but it’s clear from his letters that she was fully
Letters as Gifts
on board. These letters are somewhat unsettling—this is the risk
you take when indulging someone else’s erotica—and yet a magnificent
union of love and lust. For every potentially offensive sentiment—and
there are many—there is an extraordinary sentiment to bring her (and
us) back to the reality of his love. On December 2, 1909 he wrote:
But, side by side and inside the spiritual love I have for you
there is also a wild beast like craving for every inch of your
body, for every secret and shameful part of it, for every odour
and act of it. My love for you allows me to pray to the spirit of
eternal beauty and tenderness mirrored in your eyes or fling
you down under me on that softy belly of yours and fuck you
up behind, like a hog riding a sow, glorying in the very stink
and sweat that rises from your arse, glorying in the open
shape of your upturned dress and white girlish drawers and
in the confusion of your flushed cheeks and tangled hair.
Joyce himself once said of these salacious letters, nine published in
total, “Some of it is ugly, obscene and bestial, some of it is pure and holy
and spiritual: all of it is myself.”
As you can see, these letters are well-equipped to offend modern
eyes, and they do. Namely, they offend the eyes of James and Nora’s
grandson, Stephen Joyce, who now oversees his grandfather’s estate.
Joyce holds a rigid right hand over both the literature and letters in his
domain. The James Joyce Estate has been known to stop public readings of Ulysses and wreak havoc at James Joyce exhibits all in the name
of copyright infringement.
In 2004, another one of the December 1909 erotic letters, thought
to be lost for good, was found and auctioned off at Sotheby’s in London
for the equivalent of $445,000—four times the expected price. The
estate would not release the content of the letter, making it clear that
this letter was not meant for publication. I tend to think if you’re willing to nominate yourself for literary immortality, as James Joyce did,
then you freely place your privacy on the ledge knowing it could fall
off it at any moment. I also think Stephen Joyce is not protecting his
grandfather’s privacy but rather his own. He doesn’t want to be the
kid on the playground when all the other kids know his grandpa wrote
some dirty letters.
The bad news is that all letters written to Nora are off limits for
reproduction. The good news is they are sitting silently on library
shelves across the country, as they have been since 1976 (Stephen
Joyce says they were published originally behind his back). The builtin irony is that James Joyce spent much of his literary career being
censored. Ulysses was banned in both the United States and the United
Kingdom for—you’ll never guess what—lewd sexual content. Copyright on all of James Joyce’s letters expires in 2012—my watch is set.
Despite knowing the odds of Stephen Joyce allowing me to reprint any
of these letters were next to none, I still had to try:
My Letter to Stephen Joyce
M AY 5, 2006
Dear Mr. Joyce,
I hope this letter finds you well. I have a request of you and I am almost
certain you will not rule in my favor, but I hope you can appreciate my need to
ask. I also hope you are willing to read this letter in its entirety.
I am currently writing a book about letter writing, and I plan to emphasize how this practice needs to be carried out well into the twenty-first century
and beyond—lest we as early twenty-first-century regulars risk leaving no
evidence of our existence and practices. I am including a handful of historical
letters in this book to create a live connection between yesterday and today. It
gives people, myself especially, great comfort to know that the emotions that
rule our lives—such as love, lust, anger, determination, and frustration—
have ruled the lives of individuals since the beginning. We tend to forget this
and convince ourselves that their lives were somehow easier and more ethical,
when in many cases their lives were much more difficult and their ethics
remarkably askew.
Letters as Gifts
I have compiled a list of letters—including those written by John Keats,
Edgar Allan Poe, Susan B. Anthony, and Abraham Lincoln—and would very
much like to include a letter by James Joyce. The letter I have in mind was
written to Nora Barnacle on December 2, 1909. It is to my understanding that
the letters written to Nora in December of that year are a sensitive subject as
they are of an erotic nature. I find them to be a magnificent juxtaposition of
love and lust. These letters serve to show how two people were able to keep their
passion alive and well five and half years into their relationship. They also
illustrate a man’s ability to project both his animal instincts and intellectual
love onto one woman. And, obviously, they are remarkably well written.
I first came across these letters on the Internet and the site showed the letters
in fragments. I wasn’t sure if they were real or not, so I explored further and
found that they were. To my disappointment, what the Web site had done was
cut out all evidence of love and left only erotic sentiments. I fear that when the
copyright on Joyce’s work expires in 2012 that that is how these letters will be
passed around and perceived. It will go unmentioned that the woman he was
writing to was the love of his life and the mother of his children.
I can imagine it isn’t easy for you to think of your grandparents in such a
way, but you’ve also had to make many concessions with their notoriety that
the rest of us haven’t had to. I beseech you; please let me reintroduce these as
the brilliant, brazen love letters that they are. I am more than willing to have
you approve the text that will precede the December 2nd letter.
I know that the stance of the Estate is that this is not Joyce’s literary work and
therefore is not a subject of general interest. If you’ll allow me to disagree—
intimate human relations undoubtedly intrigues all people, and I think it
certainly qualifies as general interest. The Selected Letters of James
Joyce was published based on the assumption that people craved a more
personal look at this extraordinary writer.
I’m sure you’d rather these letters had never been published, which is
understandable. But that is not the issue at hand as they already have been, and
I believe abating their reproduction is in the same vein as banning Ulysses—
as it once was both in the United States and United Kingdom. James Joyce
certainly let his life influence his literature and he let his literary style influence
his letters. I believe that letters are literature and would very much like to see
James Joyce live on uncensored. Please consider this. Thank you for your time.
Kind regards,
Samara O’Shea
His Response
I didn’t hold out high hopes that he would get back to me, but he put
me to shame—not only did he reply, he handwrote his response. As
expected, he basically told me to go to Hell, but he took an appreciated ten minutes out of his life to do it. If you’d like to view the letter
he wrote me, it’s posted on my Web site:
2 Letter Therapy
I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter
and make believe it came from you.
—Joe Young/Fred E. Alhert
One of the lesser-known benefits of letter writing is how well you can
get to know yourself in the process. In order to accurately explain to
someone else what’s going on within, you first need to have your own
firm grasp of it. When speaking, we often tell others what we think
they want to hear or what comes conveniently, sometimes irrationally
to mind. When writing, you set aside quality time with yourself and
end up examining your relationship with the soon-to-be receiver. Before delivering the message you’ll confirm that, yes, this is in fact how
I feel. Sometimes seeing your thoughts out in the open offers a consolation in itself, and you realize it was you and not them who needed
the clarification. Other times you can reread what you wrote and
thank God you never sent it because it was written hastily and in a moment of fleeting anger. Herein lies the solace some people get from
keeping a diary or journal.
In the same vein as personal insight, letters also act as a vessel of
closure. The meaning of emotional closure varies from situation to
situation—ultimately it’s whatever enables you to end one chapter in
your life and start the next. When an act of closure cannot or does not
come from the person who can grant it, letters can help you create
your own and move on.
Although good-bye letters and flaming-tongue (angry) letters seem
a far cry from each other, I include them together because they are the
two types of letters that can be emotionally advantageous whether
they are sent or unsent.
Good-bye letters are communicative chameleons. They adapt to their
surroundings and can make sense in several situations. The only absolute sentiment that they have to convey is “farewell,” but the details
after that can vary. For example, they could be breakup type letters,
as in: Good-bye I never want to see you again. They could be “break”
letters: Good-bye, let’s meet up again a few months from now when
we both have our heads on straight. They could be love letters: Farewell for now, until we meet again. In any case, they offer a sense of
finality. They close the door behind your time spent with one person
and open the door to life that’s a little, and sometimes a lot, different.
There’s something incredibly human about saying good-bye. A
missed opportunity to do so is often met with deep disappointment.
I know a handful of people who have written letters and placed
them in a casket. It made them feel better as they were unable to say
good-bye to the deceased. Sometimes initiating a difficult good-bye
can be a personal triumph—it is both devastating and empowering
when you admit to yourself that a friend, lover, or even family member is hurting you too much and it’s in your best interest to walk away.
The Billy Joel song “Stop in Nevada” tells the story of a woman emotionally estranged from her husband, who makes the sudden, seemingly
necessary decision to leave: “Now she’s headed out to California. It’s
been a long time coming but she’s feeling like a woman tonight. And she
Letter Therapy
left a little letter says she’s gonna make a stop in Nevada. Good-bye.”
I’ve written good-bye letters of all kinds. I’ll discuss this more in
regard to letters of gratitude (a few chapters away), but I find when
leaving a job or other temporary state of affairs a combination goodbye/thank you missive is much appreciated by those left behind. It’s
something people tend to remember. Of course the most memorable
of my good-bye letters have been in the end-of-the-affair arena. I believe there’s a difference between breakup and good-bye letters. A
breakup letter is usually the beginning of the end—you’re officially
announcing that the relationship is over but there’s a call for some back
and forth. A good-bye letter is given when all is said and done—it’s
clear that things haven’t worked out and, for what’s it’s worth, you
hand over your final thoughts. A good-bye letter can also make it clear
that you’re out no matter what, and things aren’t open for discussion at
all, as it did in Lady Nevada’s case.
This good-bye letter falls under the “small personal feat” category—
the whole process felt like taking a deep breath. I’d say I was dating a
man but we never really made it to the dating part. How about I say
we knew each other socially, we e-mailed a lot, and went out once. After that date we exchanged a few follow-up e-mails and then he disappeared. I was undoubtedly disappointed but not entirely surprised
as I sensed his hesitation. Fast-forward two months; he e-mailed me
what was, for the most part, a very nice apology letter (see letter, page
102). I didn’t want to be but I was very happy to hear from him. We
eased back into a virtual repartee, which amounted to him saying he’d
do anything to redeem himself. For fun, I listed a number of humiliating tasks and two real ones. Humiliating tasks: 1) Spend a week in
Robin Hood–inspired tights. 2) Go Brad Pitt blond. 3) Make out with
several men of my choice. Real tasks: 1) Call me. 2) Be prepared to
trek to my neighborhood (a very inconvenient stone’s throw from his).
He wittingly entertained the shameful errands for a while and was
willing to do the neighborhood thing, but not the calling thing.
Now, had this been back in those dark days before the book He’s Just
Not That Into You (Simon & Schuster, 2004) came to save women from
themselves, I may not have noticed. But it’s rule number #2: He’s Just
Not That Into You If He’s Not Calling that came into play, and it was
fascinating to watch. He would tell me he’d love to talk me, and then
he wouldn’t call. He told me this great story about losing my cell
phone number; meanwhile my work number appears at the bottom of
every e-mail I send. I am obviously a fan of the written word, but not so
much that it trumps the spoken word, especially when acts of redemption are concerned.
After days of going back and forth and him ignoring my request, I
sighed in defeat, but this time I walked away. I had already been cast
off once and didn’t want to set myself up to have it happen again. Let
me say this: It is beyond therapeutic. It is emotionally emancipating to
look at someone and say, “I like you. I like you sooooo much, but there
is one person here I have to like more than I like you and that is me.”
(Greg Behrendt* are you reading this? Aren’t you proud of me?!)
The Good-bye Letter
From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
09/30/05 11:39 AM
I’m sorry, but I’m not doing this. Actually, I’m not sorry I’m
not doing this, it’s just a slightly more polite way to start off
such a sentence. It is poor form for you to boast that you’ll do
anything (in caps even) to redeem yourself and not be willing
to pick up the telephone and end this cyberspace charade. It’s
not that I don’t enjoy e-mailing with you. I love the directions
our banters tend to go in, but I don’t need a pen pal.
The refrain you kept reciting over the summer was “I don’t
know what I want.” My advice to you: There’s only one thing
you need to know when you’re dating someone, and that is
*Coauthor of He’s Just Not That Into You.
Letter Therapy
that you can’t wait to see them again. Yes, I believe it’s that’s
simple. You leave their presence and think, “Wow, when can
I see them again?” If it’s any more complicated than that, then
it’s too complicated. And I have wondered, “When can I see
him again?” since the day I met you. I have no shame in saying
such a thing, as it’s never been a secret here that my interest
outweighed yours. If I don’t evoke similar sentiments in you,
then there’s no need to waste either of our time. We both
agree it’s nothing short of a miracle for two people to stand on
the exact same level of interest and attraction, so I’m not offended. I completely understand.
I don’t want this to undermine your apology. You apologized, and I genuinely appreciate it. Consider your karma clear.
I just don’t see the need to take it any farther than that.
All the best to you,
Be Specific
The two issues every good-bye letter should address are where you’re
going and why you’re going there. They should also touch upon
whether you’re planning to come back or not. If you’re not physically
going away but rather ending a relationship, then you should explain
your metaphorical leave of absence. In good-bye/love letters you can
gush about not wanting to leave and how much you’ll miss the other
l How to Start
Tell them where you’re coming from. If you’ve
come to this conclusion after a long time: “I’ve thought this
through, and this is something I have to do” or if it was a more
sudden decision: “This is going to catch you off guard. It caught
me off guard also, but it feels like the right thing to do.” If you’re
writing a good-bye/love letter, start off with something along
the lines of “I’m going to miss you so much.”
l Good-bye Forever
Trying to convey this is easier than you
think, and yes, you can do it without being cruel. Sometimes
relationships, whether romantic or not, have to end with no
one at fault. It’s either a classic clash of personalities or simply
two people wanting very different things from each other—as
was the case above. You can say directly, “This needs to be our
last contact as I’ve already thought about this countless times,”
or you can imply it with words that don’t lend themselves to
future contact. Ending a letter with “I wish you well in all that
you do” aids in getting that message across.
l Good-bye for Now
A “break” is an acceptable and wellknown chapter in many relationships and even some friendships.
In letters referring to this, you’ll want to make it clear that you
do hope to get back in touch; you just need space for the time
being: “I look forward to reconvening with you perhaps later this
year, but for now I need time to think things through.”
l Distance Drama
If you’re ending an otherwise good relationship because of a distance situation that is imminent and
irrevocable, then make sure you distinguish that as being the
barrier between you: “Please don’t doubt for a second that you
are the object of my full affection and in any other circumstance I would be wholly yours. Since our lives can’t have us
any closer and it doesn’t seem like they’ll be able to accommodate us for years—if ever—I think it’s best that we not
strain ourselves with a long-distance relationship.”
l Lasting Words of Love
I think temporary separations, more
so than almost any other situation, lend to extraordinary love
letters—as the cliché “absence makes the heart grow fonder”
tends to be true. For this, follow basic rules in the love letter
chapter and throw in some good-bye sentiments such as, “This
time apart is going to kill me, but if it has to be then I am
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looking forward to craving you each and every moment I’m
l Upon
My Return Consider ending good-bye/love letters
with a “when I get back” segment. This is the perfect time to
embellish a new fantasy or simply make the point that you’ll
spend a great deal of time together on the other side of the
Signing Off
вњ‰ I part with you in peace, Author of A Vindication of the Rights
of Women and mother of Mary Shelley (think Frankenstein), Mary
Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) wrote a harsh but necessary goodbye letter to fellow writer and lover Gilbert Imlay when his
unfaithfulness reached its peak. Toward the end of the letter,
she calmed down and ended it in this mature fashion.
вњ‰ Good-bye. I no longer believe. I no longer hope. I no longer
love, French courtesan and proud bisexual Liane de Pougy
(1869–1950) wrote this to the first great female love of her life,
Natalie Barney, as their relationship was turning sour. Liane went
on to write a book about the affair entitled The Sapphic Idyll (1901).
✉ I bid you an affectionate farewell, On April 10, 1865, confederate army general, Robert E. Lee (1807–1870), having already surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, wrote a farewell letter to
his army.
✉ I wish you well in all that you do, and All the best to you, I’ve
found these to be kind, effective ways to end good-bye letters.
If it’s a good-bye/love letter you’re writing, then you can let the grammar lapse. Any other type of good-bye letter, especially if you intend
to be firm should be as clean as possible. Misspellings and poor punctuation can detract from conveying a strong message.
How to Send
Paper is most effective in conveying a strong sense of “the end.” I know
I’ve already broken my own rule (with Mr. Indecisive). The only problem with e-mail is it’s very easy for the other person to reply, so if you
really don’t want any more contact, then you have to be very clear.
Mine worked well—he never responded. If it’s a good-bye/love letter
you’re writing, then let it be the last thing you hand the other person
before they get in the car, on the plane, bus, or train. Of course you’ll
be in contact via phone and e-mail throughout your separation, but a
paper letter is an extra-special good-bye gift.
Closure: A Melodramatic Analogy
As I said, I think good-bye letters can play a key role in giving both
parties closure. Truth be told, I have no idea what closure is. I can offer no psychoanalysis as to where it comes from or why we need it. I do
know that when a situation lacks closure—when I haven’t had final
words with someone—it sits itself in the back of my mind and hangs
out for an undisclosed amount of time. I don’t enjoy leaving doors ajar
like that. I prefer to say good-bye.
Often, part of saying good-bye means having your questions
answered—as we crave knowledge of every character’s motivation in
a novel, play, or movie, we also wish to know the incentives of the
ever-changing cast in own lives. Whether it’s the end of a friendship
or romantic rendezvous, the first question we all ask is “Why?” usually
followed by “How did this happen?” Chances are if you aren’t asking
those questions or don’t feel a certain craving for closure, you can bet
the other person needs it from you.
Now we move into my over-the-top analogy. I’ve chosen two androgynous names for this to avoid showing favoritism to either sex.
I’ve heard just as many men cry, “Why couldn’t she give me closure?”
as I have heard women whimper the reverse. Read this however you’d
like: Taylor and Alex have been together for little over a year now, and
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one day Taylor takes out a knife and slices Alex’s arm open with it.
Taylor then runs away. When Taylor gets to the corner, there’s two
choices waiting: 1) Keep running. 2) Turn around and help Alex. The
difference from where Alex stands is this: Taylor cannot undo the sudden, mortal combat wound but can come back, stop the bleeding,
wrap the gash, and then go. This way Taylor has helped Alex’s healing
begin. Now Alex may have a while before the injury is completely
healed, but the point is it’s on its way. Otherwise Alex is left alone
with the bloody mess and there’s no telling when the bleeding will
stop—the process is at least doubled in length. Alex can opt to push
Taylor away and refuse the aid, which still leaves Alex to deal with the
problem alone. The melodramatic moral of the story is: You hurt
someone or you got hurt yourself—you can’t make the pain stop but
you can get the healing started. This is closure.
A Tale of Two Letters
Now how do you obtain a sense of closure when the other party is
unwilling to participate? I’m glad you asked. It’s tough to take when
you want to talk something through and the other person is content
ignoring you, so in this situation it’s best to try and create your own
closure. I’ve successfully done this a few times and will tell you
about two.
I once had a frowned-upon relationship with a coworker. It didn’t
end well and, after it didn’t end well, it got worse as he would bring the
girl he was dating to work and parade her around. Being ignored is one
thing. Being ignored by a person you have to see every day is excruciating. He wouldn’t let me get close enough to call a truce. It was when
I stopped trying that things became somewhat civil again and we were
able to suffer small talk. Shortly thereafter, he announced he got a new
job and would be leaving. A few days before his last day I found myself
up late writing him a letter. It was a story of a letter—illustrating us. I
didn’t include any pretenses of future contact and ultimately wished
him well. When I was done I felt this incredible feeling: the need not to
give it to him. I had summed it up nicely for myself and that seemed to
be enough. I coasted through the next few shifts with no discomfort
whatsoever. On his last night I did bring the letter with me—before I
left my apartment, the writer in me shouted, Why would you write something someone else wasn’t going to read? I wasn’t sure I was going to give it
to him up until I actually did. I was getting ready to leave and knew I
could hand it over and escape without a reaction. That plan failed miserably as the manager kept me longer than expected, and I ran into him
on my way out. I could tell by the way he was smirking at me that he
had read the letter. I held my breath. He walked by me and whispered
that it was the nicest thing anyone had ever done for him. I’m sure I
wrinkled my brow in candid confusion. Needless to say I was glad I
gave it to him, but closure for me came the moment I realized I didn’t
have to.
I equate a lack of closure with a lack of control, and writing letters
offers an opportunity to regain control of your own emotional state.
The other letter that came through for me was one I really didn’t send.
I was dating a man for a little more than a month and he just stopped
calling one day. It was a short time, yes, but I liked him a lot. I was
in shock as this was my first experience with having a man disappear
entirely—I have since become an expert on that predicament. I
cracked open my journal one day and drafted a long good-bye letter to
him. I reread it a few days later and realized I actually didn’t need to
send it at all. What I did send was a book he had let me borrow. I’m
sure he didn’t care to have it back, but I sent it anyway with a short
note that said, “Thank you for this. It was nice meeting you.” Technically he ended it, but something about having confessed all to my journal and then having the literal last word made me feel as if I had
participated in the finale and therefore obtained closure.
Letter Therapy
How to Say Good-bye Before
Going to the Guillotine
BY M AR I E A N TOI NE T TE ( 1 7 5 5 –1 7 9 3 )
Fifteen-year-old Marie Antoinette, painted by Franz Xavier Wagenschon
Born into Austrian royalty, Maria Antonia Josefa Joanna von HabsburgLothringen, was married to the French Dauphin Louis-Auguste (later
Louis XVI, 1754–1793) at the age of fourteen and thenceforth known
as Marie Antoinette. She was crowned queen at the age of nineteen
and is perhaps best known for allegedly uttering a callous comment
about letting her subjects eat cake (there is little evidence to support
her actually saying this). She and her husband reigned for sixteen
years, then in 1789 the French Revolution initiated the end of absolute
monarchism in France. A mob descended on the palace in Versailles
and moved the members of the monarchy to Paris where they lived as
prisoners for four years. Louis went to the guillotine in late January
1793, and Marie, nine months later. She wrote her last letter, to her
sister-in-law Elisabeth, around 4 a.m.—eight hours before her execution. I imagine in the dark morning hours when you know dawn will
bring your death, sleep isn’t really an option, and writing the hopes
for your children and making your peace with God would help prepare you mentally. Around eleven that same morning, she was paraded
with her hands bound behind her back in a slow-moving cart around
the streets of Paris for an hour before arriving at the Place de la Revolution for the beheading. She is said to have gone to the guillotine with
a dignity that enraged her enemies.
O CTOBER 16, 1793, 4:32 IN THE MOR NI NG
It is to you, my sister, that I write for the last time. I have just been
condemned, not to a shameful death, that is only for criminals, but to rejoin
your brother. Like him, I am innocent, I hope to show the same firmness in my
last moments. I am calm, as one is when one’s conscience does not reproach
one. I feel a profound sadness in leaving my children. You know that I existed
only for them; and you, my good and tender sister, you who have in your
friendship sacrificed everything to be with us, in what a position I leave you!
I learned during the trial that my daughter was separated from you, alas
the poor child, I do not dare write her, she would not receive my letter. I do not
even know if it will reach you. Receive my blessings for you both; I hope that
one day when they are grown older they will be reunited with you and enjoy
your tender care. They must always remember what I never ceased to teach
them, that principles and attention to duty are the foundation of life, that
their friendship and trust will be its happiness. My daughter must think that
since she is older she must always help her brother by the advice which her
fuller experience and his love will inspire her, that they may feel in whatever
situation they may find themselves they are only really happy in their union,
that they follow our example and remember how through all our troubles our
friendship has consoled us, and in happiness we have enjoyed it doubly because
we have shared it with a friend, and where can one find the most tender and
faithful friends if not in one’s own family? And my son must never forget his
father’s last words, which I now solemnly repeat to him, that he should never
seek to avenge our death. I have to speak to you of something which much
afflicts my heart. I know how much this child has wounded you, pardon him,
my dear sister, consider his age and how easy it is to make a child say what one
will, and specially something he does not understand. A day will come I hope
when he will feel more keenly what all your goodness and tenderness have been
and what it cost you. It remains only for me to confide to you my last thoughts.
I wished you to do this before the trial, but partly because they did not allow
me to write and its progress was so rapid I really did not have the time.
I die in the Catholic Faith, Apostolic and Roman; that of my fathers, in which
I was brought up and which I have always professed; having no consolation to
hope for, not knowing if indeed there are still the priests of Faith and if there were
whether it would not be too dangerous to come even to this place. I ask God’s
Letter Therapy
pardon for all the faults which I may have committed since I was born; I have no
hope but in His goodness. I hope that in His mercy He will receive my last prayer
and those which I have made so long, that He will receive my soul in His merciful
kindness. I ask pardon of all whom I have known and in particular from you, my
sister, for all the trouble which without meaning to I may have caused. Forgive all
my enemies the evil they have done to me. I say good-bye to my aunts and to all
my brothers and sisters. I had some friends. The thought of being separated from
them is one of the greatest regrets I have in dying. They may know at least, that
until my last moment I have thought of them.
Farewell, my good and tender sister, I hope that this letter may reach you.
Do not forget me. I embrace you with all my heart as well as my poor children.
My God! How it tears my heart to leave them forever. Farewell, farewell! I
must now think of my spiritual duties. As I am not free they will perhaps bring
me a priest (having taken the oath) but I swear here that I will not speak one
word, and I will treat him as an absolute stranger.
Marie Antoinette
Anger is a decisive emotion, which can be both good and bad. The good
is you don’t wait or waver—you say what’s on your mind, you act instinctively, and there is no hesitation. I call this good because oftentimes
problems that fester inside us wouldn’t see the light of day save for intense moments of anger. Anger gives us permission to say just about
anything. Anger is also a way to reinforce how serious or upset you are
to whoever’s present. We all know what the downside is—you don’t
think before you speak or act and can end up really hurting someone.
Anger in excess is never good, but in moderation it—like every
emotion—plays a needed role in our lives. It was once a common assumption made by me and a few other family members that my cousin
Jennifer and her husband (stars of the love letter chapter) never fought.
That fight scene is really difficult to imagine. I asked her about it once
and she said of course they fight and she’d wonder about a couple that
never fought because that would signify that they didn’t communicate.
Differences are inevitable; it’s how you handle them that counts.
Anger in letters—like anger in life—also teeters on the balance
beam between good and bad. It’s bad if you write when you’re blind
with rage and hand it over without a second thought. However, if you
write when you’re angry and edit when you’re collected, then you can
master the art of saying what needs to be said but communicating it in a
way that’s not so irrational you risk hurting someone beyond repair. I
wrote this next letter for a friend who was furious with another friend of
hers who I only knew in passing. She asked me to work on it because she
knew I could write a more levelheaded letter. I was equipped to do this
because I understood the story but wasn’t suffering the same aggravation
as she. The issue at hand centered around the timeless problem of having
a friend who cannot juggle an old friendship and a new relationship.
The Flaming-Tongue Letter
(All names in this letter have been changed)
May 2004
Needless to say I’m hurt but I’m not surprised. Your not
showing up at my birthday party was an added injury to an
already fading friendship. I am infuriated, with myself as well
as you, for pretending everything was okay the day we spoke
on the phone. Small talk was clearly the tool you used to avoid
the problems at hand, and I was in shock that you were content to act as if everything was normal so I didn’t speak my
mind in time. Now I wish I had.
Letter Therapy
It hurts me so much that you haven’t taken the time to acknowledge we’re having problems. I think Jake is the only
person you not only see but consider, and I think it’s a shame
our relationship has to suffer because you haven’t learned the
balancing act of life. This involves making time for friends
and family as well as your boyfriend and being able to enjoy the
company of each together as well as separately. I’m sorry you
feel the need to consult Jake on everything and deny yourself
even the slightest bit of independence. I know my relationship
with Carl has its problems, but one thing he and I both understand is that our friendships are nonnegotiable.
I know work was a nightmare for you, but I’m glad it brought
us together—even if only for a short time. I’ll miss our latenight gab sessions and Sex in the City marathons. I still hold a
small hope that we can salvage this, but that’s up to you. I feel
as if I’ve done all I can at this point.
Be Specific
The good thing about writing angry letters is you don’t have to put
much thought into them—everything will come to you, even things
you didn’t know you were thinking. And again, the downside is because you don’t put too much thought into them, you’ll need to go
back and rethink them.
l How to Start
Your anger will usually inspire you to get right
to the point and state the reason you’re angry, hurt, etc. If
you’re having trouble, another way to open is by giving the
other person a frame of reference for the specific incident or
the mounting problem. “I’ve tried and honestly cannot understand why you were so cold to me at Angela’s dinner party,” or
“For a while now I’ve hoped your busy schedule was a phase,
and time for us was right around the corner. It has become
painfully clear that is not the case.”
l Sleep on It
Never send the fi rst draft of an angry letter. By
all means write it when you’re fuming, then set it aside and
read it the next day or when you’ve felt yourself calm down.
When you edit, remove all the upper cuts and low blows.
Keep the core—the thing that really upset you. The thing
you need an apology for or the thing that has to be worked on
in order for the relationship to survive. In waiting it’s also
possible to realize that you reacted too quickly and since
you’re seeing more clearly now, you might be able to throw
away the letter and call it a day.
l It Hurts Me
Don’t write a laundry list telling the other person everything they do wrong—this will put them on the
defensive. It’s more effective to tell them how their actions affect you—they can’t argue with how you feel. Rather than
saying “You’re so condescending,” try “It hurts me when you
make it sound as though your job is harder than mine.”
l Reverse Apology
Apologize to them for their behavior. For
example, “I’m sorry you find it necessary to treat me this
way.” If you want to throw in a little sarcasm (remember, everything in moderation) you can try apologizing for your assets. As in, “I’m sorry I let my patience get the better of me.”
Be careful with the latter though—you don’t want to go overboard, as in “I’m sorry I’m such a wonderful person.” That’s
not necessary.
l Easy
on the Expletives As the wit master himself, Mark
Twain, once said, “When angry, count a hundred; when very
angry, swear.” I don’t recommend riddling the entire letter
with expletives—they’ll lose their effectiveness if there’s too
many—but one or two in the name of emphasis is okay. A
friend of mine once started an angry letter to another friend
of ours with: “First of all: Fuck you.” I thought it was brilliant,
Letter Therapy
well worded, and well deserved as I had witnessed the clash
that caused the letter. This way the initial anger was out on
the table and the remainder of the letter was firm but not
l Assert Your Worth
Now is not the time to be humble or
shy. The reason you’re irate is because you’re feeling undervalued. Someone is ignoring one or many of your needs. I was
once in a verbal argument with a friend and she looked at me
and said shamelessly, “Do you know what a good friend I am?”
She was absolutely right to ask me that. If you feel someone
is taking advantage of your good graces, feel free to remind
them that you are a great person and they best treat you as
such. You can fi nd a prime example of this at the end of the
chapter under Angry Letters Aloud.
l Filter Through a Friend
If you want the issue dealt with
immediately and don’t have time to sleep on it, consider showing the letter to a trusted friend first. They can help you gauge
whether it’s right on or needs revising.
l Wish Them Well
If the angry letter could result in the end
of the relationship, as the example did, I wouldn’t write it unless you can legitimately wish the other person well. Letters
are permanent and, if the other person chooses to keep your
letter, you don’t want your last words to be damning them to
Hell. You can tell them how distraught you are and still round
out at the end to say what upsets you the most is that the relationship has taken a turn for the worse and you wish them the
best, regardless.
Signing Off
Angry letters don’t usually end with a two- or three-word sentiment, but
oftentimes a strong sentence and simply signing your name. If you do
choose to end with a traditional closing, I think it’s best to make it a
respectful one such as “yours” or “sincerely,” as anger tends to be fleeting. These, on the other hand, are strong sentence endings:
вњ‰ It depends upon yourself if hereafter you see or hear from me.
вњ‰ I have made every exertion but in vain.
✉ For God’s sake pity me and save me from destruction. All of
the above are from Edgar Allan Poe to his foster father, John Allan (more on these two at the end of this chapter).
Just leave me alone, if you don’t want me to stop trusting you
for good. In addition to her world-renowned diary, Anne
Frank (1929–1945) also wrote letters while her and her family
were in hiding. This heated sentence was part of a two-page letter written to her father, Otto, after he forbade her to be alone
in the attic with the young son of the family with whom they
were hiding.
When writing these through a stream of angry consciousness, grammar will undoubtedly fall to the wayside. If you choose to reread to
make sure your anger isn’t too out of line before you send, then that’s a
good time to double-check your grammar. The cleaner it is, the stronger
your point will be.
How to Send
It depends on the reality of seeing the person. If you live with them
and can put it in a place you know they’ll get it, then do that. If you’re
not speaking, then you can mail it. I only suggest e-mail if you’re willing to turn your computer off and walk away once you’re done writing. If you send the message and you’re both in front of the screen, you
could get into a heated match online. Nothing is worse than fighting
over e-mail—there is ample room for misinterpretation. If you get
into a virtual spat, one of you needs to step back and say, “We have to
talk in person about this.”
Letter Therapy
If You Receive a Flaming-tongue Letter
Try not to react hastily—read it once, then read it again a while later.
Consider the other person’s point of view. Remember that they’re
hurt and whether you intended to cause that pain or not, you need to
think about what you can do to remedy the situation if you care to
maintain the relationship. There should be a balance here—you’ll
probably spot at least a few details that make you want to defend yourself, but hopefully there’ll also be particulars that you’re willing to
concede on. This is the essence of compromise. You can write back if
you’re not speaking to each other, but it’s best to meet and discuss. If
you see absolutely nothing wrong with what you’ve said or done, then
it usually means one of three things: 1) There was a vast misunderstanding. 2) The person who wrote you is of little or no consequence
to you. 3) You need to have your head examined. FYI: The apology
letter section begins on page 96.
Angry Letters Aloud
One of the more effective ways to deliver an angry letter is to read it
aloud to the other person. It’s seemingly counterproductive because
why would you bother writing everything when you can just say it?
However, what you plan to say and what you end up saying are usually very different especially when the unpredictable emotion of anger is concerned. Writing beforehand allows you to collect your
thoughts so that you don’t leave anything out. What’s more, if you
tell someone you’re about to read a letter they’ll most likely wait
until you’re done before responding. If you’re speaking, they’ll take
liberties with interrupting you and abrasive interruptions always intensify a fight. I recently read a frustrated letter out loud to a friend.
She waited until I was finished to react then she took the paper from
me and we went over everything point by point. She apologized for
some things, I apologized for others, and we agreed to disagree on
the rest.
I had an angry letter read to me a few years ago. My boyfriend and
I had gotten into an impassioned argument over the phone. I went to
sleep and he started to write. He called me back at 2 a.m. to read what
he had written. The letter was long, but it needed to be. Both the letter and the voice he read it in were steady and strong. He wasn’t going
to waste his time shouting anymore, as he knew I was more likely to
respond to the resounding seriousness. Ultimately, we did not survive
as a couple, but at the time this letter woke me up—literally and metaphorically.
Summer 2000
I don’t know where to begin this letter. I don’t know how a
letter like this should go. As I start, my stomach turns. I
really don’t want this to be written. I wish this whole situation would just disappear from my awareness. I wish that
tonight I could have come home from work, talked about
your day, made a few jokes about our wedding party and
about your outrageously fat thighs, we could have exchanged
“I love you’s” and gone to sleep smiling, sighing, with happy
hearts in the comfort that another human being several
hundred miles away values me in their heart more than anything on earth. For that is how I end most of my nights. But as
I sit here I get more upset. I don’t have the words. I almost
regret not hanging up on you this evening. Leaving you on
the other end wondering how deeply you wounded me.
Something makes me wish that would have happened because maybe then you might take me seriously. It sickens
me to think that I will never have the power over your
heart that some immature children who hurt you in the
past do. I need to be respected. I need to be cherished the
way I cherish you. I need you to feel the same longing in
your heart for me. The same feeling that you would do anything in your power to keep me in your life. This is one of
those opportunities where you are required to do so. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how, but I want you to recognize
Letter Therapy
the present danger of losing me. I will not go through the
rest of my life being treated as a possession that you keep at
home, which you know will always be there. I want to be
there for you always but I will not if you take my love and
adoration for granted. I believe I have never let you down,
and I believe I never will. For that is the nature of my love.
When I open myself and choose to express love, I do it to
my death. I put all other concerns far second to my love. I don’t
ask anything of you other than to give this thought and appreciate it. Know that I have loved before, not to this dimension, but I have had the blessing of the emotion, and
know I am quite capable of it again. I cannot help but feel
that there are many people in the world who would pray for
a love as pure and honest and complete and unconditional
as mine for you. These thoughts are hurting me tremendously to put into words. I keep going back to the dark
clouds of your comments tonight. I want to say how dare
you gamble with my affection. I want to say how dare you
ask me to be like those whom I hate for treating something
I hold with such high regard so carelessly. How dare you ask
me to treat you with less care and say that you don’t feel I have
the power to hurt you. It puts strain on my mental well being and on my heart which I am responsible and independent enough to recognize and require your immediate
attention. The pain I feel this evening is something that I
neither want nor feel I am required to tolerate. I want you
to think about your situation. I know because you have told
me that no one has ever made such an honest and pure effort to know you. Do you think it will be easy for you to
find someone who cares for you as deeply as I do, because I do
not. That is no discredit to you, please do not take it that
way, because I only wish the whole world saw you as I do. If
they did, they would love you forever, just as I do. I do not
ask you to change who you are. I would not ask this of anyone.
All I ask is that you evaluate your priorities and either recognize the place where I belong in your heart, a place that
seems occupied with a misguided longing for others,
or . . . to be honest I don’t want to finish the or. I very
much want a future together. But I do not, I will not be
subject to this kind of emotional strain again. I will not go
to sleep restlessly again because of my concern for you,
unless you reciprocate my feelings. The outrageous irony of
the situation is I can’t stop wondering if you’re okay. I want
to know if you are sleeping soundly or if you are distraught.
I know your value upon written words. I know your love
for them and your respect and appreciation for them. That,
coupled with the fact that it is both therapeutic and necessary for me to write my feelings right now. As I told you, I
want this to work out. I want it to work out more than anything in the world. I would do anything in order to make
this work, all I ask is that you do the same. I love you.
How to Tell Your Father You’re
Leaving His House and Never
Coming Back
BY E D GAR AL L A N P OE ( 1 8 0 9–1 8 4 9 )
Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe, taken in November 1948
The father/son relationship between Edgar Allan Poe and John Allan
is one of the more tumultuous on record. Edgar’s mother, Eliza, a
prominent actress, died when she was twenty-four and he was three.
His father, David Poe Jr., had left her a year before and was never
heard from again. A woman named Frances Allan had sympathized
Letter Therapy
with Eliza during her last days, and after fighting the initial resistance
of her husband, she brought the child into their home. As Edgar grew,
he became as stubborn and fierce as his foster father, and the two
fought frequently. The disastrous dynamic reached its peak in 1827
when Edgar was attending the newly established University of Virginia. Allan did not send much money for the seventeen-year-old student to live off of, so Poe turned to gambling to sustain himself. He
returned home in March with a debt of two thousand dollars, and
Allan refused to cover any of it. A vicious fight followed that resulted
in the following letter. Edgar left and joined the army shortly after. He
did eventually resume correspondence with his father when he was
hungry for money and affection. The two shared a short-lived reconciliation when Frances Allan died in February 1829. This ended
though, when Poe announced he was leaving West Point to become a
poet. He tried to visit the only father he knew when he heard Allan
was on his deathbed in 1834. Allan reportedly lifted his cane and ordered him out of the room. Edgar was never officially adopted and
there was no mention of him in John Allan’s will.
M ONDAY M ARCH 19, 1827
After my treatment on yesterday and what passed between us this morning, I can
hardly think you will be surprised at the contents of this letter. My determination is at length taken—to leave your house and indeavor to find some place in
this wide world, where I will be treated—not as you have treated me—This is
not a hurried determination, but one on which I have long considered—and
having so considered my resolution is unalterable—You may perhaps think that
I have flown off in a passion, & that I am already wishing to return; But not
so—I will give you the reason[s] which have actuated me, and then judge—
Since I have been able to think on any subject, my thoughts have aspired,
and they have been taught by you to aspire, to eminence in public life—this
cannot be attained without a good Education, such a one I cannot obtain at a
Primary school—A collegiate Education therefore was what I most ardently
desired, and I had been led to expect that it would at some future time be
granted—but in a moment of caprice—you have blasted my hope because
forsooth I disagreed with you in an opinion, which opinion I was forced to
express—Again, I have heard you say (when you thought I was listening and
therefore must have said it in earnest) that you had no affection for me—You
have moreover ordered me to quit your house, and are continually upbraiding
me with eating the bread of Idleness, when you yourself were the only person to
remedy the evil by placing me to some business—You take delight in exposing
me before those whom you think likely to advance my interest in the world—
You suffer me to be subjected to the whims & caprice, not only of your white
family, but the complete authority of the blacks—these grievances I could not
submit to; and I am gone. I request that you will send me my trunk containing
my clothes & books—if you still have the least affection for me, as the last call
I shall make on your bounty, To prevent the fulfillment of the Prediction you
this morning expressed, send me as much money as will defray the expenses of
my passage to some of the Northern cities & then support me for one month, by
which time I shall be enabled to place myself in some situation where I may not
only obtain a livelihood, but lay by a sum which one day or another will
support me at the University—Send me my trunk &c to the Court-house
Tavern, send me I entreat you some money immediately—as I am in the
greatest necessity—If you fail to comply with my request—I tremble for the
Yours &c
Edgar A Poe
It depends upon yourself if hereafter you see or hear from me.
3 Return to Sender: Letters
that are Hard to Write and
Harder to Receive
This time I’m gonna take it myself
and put it right in her hand. And if it comes back
the very next day then I’ll understand.
—Otis Bl ackwell and Winfield Scot t
It’s no glorious task to play the bad guy, but sometimes it’s a necessary
evil. Feelings never freeze—they live their lives in constant motion,
and they update you on what’s going on instead of the other way
around. An emotional status change can mean many things. Sometimes it means the end of a relationship. Sometimes it means love has
invaded a comfortable friendship. It always means things will never be
the same.
When it comes time to end a relationship we often find ourselves
responsible for the one thing we don’t want to be responsible for:
Someone else’s feelings. The power to hurt another person is a power
we might like to have when we’re angry, but that’s about it. Most
other times it’s too much of a burden. Oddly, what’s on equal par or
oftentimes worse than breaking up with someone is telling him or her
you have an uncontrollable interest in them when they don’t feel the
same. Your plan is to flatter and you involuntarily give them reason to
avoid you.
Both of these criminal acts make their way to letter form on a regular basis. In a letter the writer is out of harm’s way when the message
is delivered, and the recipient does not need to conjure up the perfect
reaction on the spot. They can think for a while and decide what their
response will be, if they respond at all.
I know what the knee-jerk reaction to breakup letters is. It’s cowardly.
I say not always. Let me ask this, why is love in a letter okay? More
than okay—it’s considered one of the sweetest gestures of all time.
Who says one can’t agonize over writing a breakup letter the way they
agonize over writing a love letter? It’s the same act, different motivation. Also, if a letter helps, honestly helps, the writer to clearly state
what they’re going through rather than stumble over their words, then
that’s not a bad thing. As for the recipient, reading a letter gives them
a chance to react they way they want. I’m one who often walks away
from unpleasant situations thinking of all the things I should have said.
A letter gives you time to compose yourself and figure out the best
way to handle the situation. For your amusement there is a Web site,, which has posted a fresh break-up letter every day for
the past six years.
The longer a relationship lasts the more inappropriate ending with
a letter seems to be, but the fact of it is that even marriages have ended
via letter. In 2003, a book came out entitled Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s
Letters from the End of the Affair (Ballantine, 2002). Editor Anna Holmes
compiled more than 100 breakup letters written by women both
known and unknown. The oldest one was written around 10 b.c. and
the most recent in 2002. The depth of Holmes’s collection adds weight
to the breakup letter’s place in both literature and history. In October
1844, one woman from Philadelphia wrote to her husband, “I did very
wrong in marrying you without feeling a sincere attachment.” One
hundred and fifty-six years later in October 2000, another woman
Return to Sender
started a letter to her husband with “This is the hardest letter I’ve ever
had to write, and probably the hardest one you’ll ever have to read.
I’m putting my thoughts and feelings on paper because I want you to
hear me out fully before you react.”
Naturally, I can’t always make a case for breakup letters. They can
be plain cowardly. Anyone here care to claim they’ve never pulled out
their coward card? I see no hands raised, mine included. Moving on
The breakup letter below is on the angry side—I say that because
I think usually they tend to be more on the apologetic, feel-bad side.
The good thing about a breakup letter motivated by anger is you don’t
tiptoe around anything you say. Your point sails majestically across the
page, and the other person doesn’t wonder what went wrong, they
know. On with the story: I dated a man for what felt like the wrong
time the whole time. He was just coming out of a relationship and I was
out of work and unhappy with myself in general. We agreed we wanted
to be in each other’s lives, but to what extent meant different things to
both of us. He wanted to roll right into an exclusive relationship and I
wasn’t ready. One of the methods he used to inspire me to see things
his way was to go into great detail about his ex-girlfriend and how
hard she was working to get him back—a thinly veiled threat. He
would also lean into me occasionally and say things like “Now, tell me
everything you like about me.” I failed that test every time because I
was always shocked that he had the audacity to ask such a thing. I felt
bad though, because I could tell he wasn’t saying it in a haughty way,
he just wanted confirmation that our feelings were in the same place
and the reality was they weren’t. After a few more emotionally trying
ordeals on both of our ends this situation never officially ended. It
faded away.
Half a year and a much happier time later we got back in touch. We
had a pleasant e-mail exchange and agreed to get together. I was excited and had high hopes for it to work out—I blamed the universe
for its bad timing and myself for being emotionally unavailable for
things not jelling the first time. This time I had just started a new job
and successfully put my inner sourpuss back in her cage, and I could
tell from his e-mails that he was in a much better place too.
The first five minutes of our reunion was impeccable. It went downhill from there, however. He bought me a drink and said there was
someone he wanted me to meet. She was gorgeous. Breathtaking. An
Elite model. He made it not so subtly clear that he had been with her
during the interim. I sighed and smiled when I realized this was the
game we were playing again. Fortunately, I learned at a young age that a
beautiful woman is a force you cannot fight, and the wisest course of action is sit back and take in the view. She and I had a great conversation—
discussing her work and mine. Now that I’m thinking about it I should
have hung out with her, but we moved on. He had some other friends he
wanted me to meet.
Before we walked into the second bar, he grabbed my arm and said,
“Don’t tell them how we met.” I guess his past life as a bartender was
something he wanted to keep hidden. It was a lovely group of people
he introduced me and they were very welcoming. I’m glad they were
there because he kept getting up to talk to, yes, another girl. This one
was beautiful also, but in an entirely different way. The first one was a
blonde bombshell and this one was dark and classic—Ava Gardneresque. At one point I referred to her as “The Barefoot Contessa” (it
was a 1954 movie before it was a Food Network phenomena). He
turned to me, raised his left eyebrow, and said, “Jealous?” I should
have walked out then, I know. He was an insecure train wreck, and I
couldn’t turn my eyes away.
Soon after that he pulled me aside, visibly frustrated and said, “We
haven’t had any time alone.” As if they were my friends I insisted we
hang out with. We sat at our own table and I decided it was time to tell
him about the invisible guy I was dating—this was going to stop before it started again. After that I went home, fell asleep, and woke up
infuriated. It usually doesn’t happen that way, but my anger took a few
hours to soak through. I hated the way he treated me and I hated that
I didn’t say anything at the time. It wasn’t too late. That which had
faded away once was now seeing its official end.
Return to Sender
The Breakup Letter
From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
01/05 (All names in this letter have been changed.)
I apologize in advance for the length and subject matter of this
note. I’ve been seized with the need to be unabashedly honest. I am not seeing anyone. I only said that to put up an immediate barrier between us. Admittedly, it was a coward’s
call. At first I was excited to see you and hadn’t ruled out the
possibility of us dating again. But I quickly encountered the
same unappealing characteristics that kept me from getting
close to you the first time.
The first, and perhaps most unsettling, is your need to put
me in direct comparison with other women. Soon after you
introduced me to Linda, you smirked and asked if she was
rude to me. I’m sure you would have liked it if she had been,
knowing that a catfight was taking place in your honor. But no
such luck; she was very polite. And again, later that night—
calling Melissa The Barefoot Contessa was a reference to her
looking like Ave Gardner. Your gut reaction was to initiate
the competition and ask if I was jealous. I am a woman who
finds myself intrigued and astounded by the beauty of other
women—you know this about me. I do not appreciate your
trying to transfigure my admiration into jealousy for your
own personal gain.
Another trait that has kept me at arm’s length is your incessantly asking whether or not I find you attractive. You did
this often while we dated and again on Friday night. When I
am with someone I’m attracted to, such as yourself, I’m happy
to confess that attraction at unpredicted moments. I feel as
though I never had a chance to do this with you because you
solicit compliments from me on a regular basis by requesting
that I tell you all the things I like about you. That’s information I prefer to volunteer.
You are a thoughtful person with many redeeming qualities, but your need to be constantly reassured of your looks
and talents is off-putting. I hope someday you are comfortable enough in your own skin to know these things are true
and have that be enough. I wish you well in all that you do.
The Response
I didn’t know if I should have expected a response to this, and I
thought if he did reply he’d rebuke me right back. He wrote the next
day, and I hesitantly opened my e-mail. He told me I was right. I didn’t
believe it either. He didn’t say I was right about all of it, but he told me
as far as the other women went, it was his inappropriate way of saying
“See, other girls like me.” I was astonished by his admittance, and he
instantly earned back a huge chunk of the respect that he had lost. Our
exchange after that ended cordially. We’ve been in touch sporadically
since and wish the best for each other.
Be Specific
Here you try to master the difficult art of being as honest as possible
without being cruel. Unless you, like me, are frustrated and fed up.
If you’re angry the letter will come to you naturally. If you’re breaking it off with someone who you don’t want to hurt, then the task is
unsettling. You should be specific to a certain extent though, because the other person will want to know what went wrong.
l How to Start
If you’ve been pondering the breakup for a
while and know that it’s affected your behavior, then consider
starting with an explanation: “My attitude lately has been
aloof at best and rude at worst. I’m sorry I’ve waited so long to
explain myself.” Then go on to explain where you’re coming
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from. Otherwise, you can get to the point and let it be known
that this still isn’t easy: “I’m not sure where to begin,” or “I’m
sorry not to do this in person but it’s easier for me to put my
thoughts on paper.”
l When Doing That
Try not to suggest that the problem is
fixable. For example, if you say, “This is all my fault, work has
been getting to me lately.” Work isn’t always going to get to
you, and they might think once this quarter is over you can
give it another go. Imply something more permanent, “I’ve enjoyed our time together very much, but don’t see it going further than it already has.”
l Call Yourself a Coward
They’re going to call you one anyway, you might as well put it out there that you know what
you’re doing. Steal my line: “Admittedly, this is a coward’s
call,” or try something like “I’m sure my unwillingness to do
this in person disappoints you. It disappoints me too.”
l Unless You’re Not Being One
If writing the letter is not an
act of avoidance but a last resort to get through to someone
then make that clear: “I would like to discuss this with you,
but you’ve gotten into the unfortunate habit of not listening to
anything I say.”
l Disappearing Act
If the letter comes in lieu of one other
alternative—walking away without saying anything—then say
that. If writing a letter is the act of a chicken, then disappearing with no word is raw poultry on a plate. If they realize that
was the only other option, then you may come off as somewhat
valiant: “You must know that walking away in silence has been
a cloud of temptation over me this entire time—a result of my
inadequacies, not yours—but you deserve better than that.”
Signing Off
✉ Ever admiringly & fondly, Agnes von Kurowsky (1892–
1984), a great love of Ernest Hemingway, ended a very polite
yet clear breakup letter this way. Hemingway was crushed. His
broken heart went on to inspire both the short story “A Very
Short Story,” (1925) and the novel A Farewell to Arms (1929).
✉ Never yours, In Christine Gallagher’s book, The Woman’s Book
of Divorce (Citadel, 2001), a subject named Madeline ends a letter
to her ex-husband in this assertive fashion.
вњ‰ Regretfully, Author Rosemarie Keller Skaine used this closing to break up with Bob, her boyfriend in 1954. The letter assures him he has done nothing wrong and there is no one else,
she just doesn’t have any feelings left for him.
Keep it as clean as possible. The other person will take comfort in your
mistakes: “You see, he can’t even spell!” On second thought, maybe it’s
kind to give them a few errors to gripe over.
How to Send
You’re not going to like what I’m about to say. I think e-mail is best
here. If, and I’m saying if, you decide you’re going to end it via letter, then time is of the essence. You can’t mail it because that means
you know the relationship has to end on Tuesday and you leave
them in the dark until at least Thursday. You can’t hand someone a
breakup letter because then why wouldn’t you just breakup with
them in person? E-mail gives the other person an easy and immediate platform to respond if they choose. If you’re married or live together then, yes, you can access them easily and put paper in their
path (I know it sounds cruel but we’ve already discussed this). All
of the letters in this chapter were sent by e-mail, with the exception
of the Sarah Bernhardt letter at the end. She was a brazen woman
though; if e-mail had existed in 1847 she would’ve had no qualms
with using it.
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How to Break Up with Someone Very Carefully
Although the majority of my Web site customers are women, the occasional man finds his way in. And no, not all of them are looking to
write breakup letters, but this gentleman was. He was in perhaps
the most difficult breakup situation there is—a change of feelings.
This is especially hard because your significant other has done nothing wrong, they walk around being the great person they’ve always
been, but there’s some emotional altercation inside you and you’d be
untrue to yourself if you kept the relationship going. In a circumstance like this, it’s important to accept that the other person will be
hurt no matter what, and you can’t really throw down a safety net
for them. As long as you’re honest and respectful, you’ve done all
you can.
(All names in this letter have been changed.)
March 2006
There’s no way to say this, but it’s impossible not to say it either. I’m sure you’ve sensed my distance recently, and I owe
you an explanation. The trouble is there is no good explanation—
any reason I offer will fall short of what you deserve. Before I
go any further I want to say that you have done nothing wrong.
You are the same angel I started dating earlier this year.
What’s happened is something has changed within me. I can’t
identify or fix it, but I know as a result of it I should break up
with you. I hate that I just said that. I’ve been struggling with
this, hoping things would click back into place. I fear if we
keep moving forward I’ll become more and more emotionally detached and I don’t want you to have to deal with that. I
can try to answer any questions you have. I hope you can forgive me. I truly hope we can be friends. I really mean that.
Watch the White Lies
White lies are a staple in breakup letters and certainly forgivable to a
certain extent. You tell them to protect the other person. Be careful not
to white-lie about something you’re willing to do though. The breakup
letter below was sent to me. It relieved me and then it broke me. It came
after days of not hearing from him and knowing something is better
than nothing, but knowing this wasn’t good.
From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
12/16/03 10:42 PM
Hey Samara, What’s Up? Sorry for getting back to you so late.
Things have been a little weird for me lately. Something/an
old someone has come up and we should probably talk about
it. It was a bit of a surprise to me. I hate to get you involved
and that is why I have strayed away recently. I am a bit of a
mental mess at the moment but will try to fix that. I didn’t
want it to come between us but I guess it sort of has. Anyway
I’m working late again tonight so maybe we can get in touch
sometime tomorrow or maybe you would rather not talk to
me. Either way is understandable.
I zeroed in on six words here, “. . . we should probably talk about
it.” I knew it would be a hard conversation to have, but at least I
could get a few answers and some closure. Oh, if only it were that
easy. That part was written just to make the note seem nicer. I
know because I called his work phone and his cell phone and his cell
phone and his cell phone. Not all in a row—twice that night and
twice the next morning. I went to do it again in the early afternoon
and realized I was one phone call away from earning my straitjacket
stripes. I calmed down and granted myself one final plea over
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From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
12/17/03 1:53 PM
I can respect your decision to reunite with your old girlfriend.
Please try to understand though, this is hard for me and I can’t
just turn off my feelings for you, which is why my desire to
speak with you is so strong. Talking to you would help me end
this—us—on a good note. But if it’s something you don’t feel
you can do, then I’ll respect your stance and hope that someday we can catch up like old friends. You’re a rare find and a
truly genuine person. It was a pleasure getting to know you
He called me twenty minutes later.
How to Break Up with Someone You Really Like
This is one of those hookup-only situations you treat yourself to every
now and then. I had known this guy for years and had always found him
attractive. I was told to stay away from him, which made him more attractive. It went remarkably well for longer than I had expected, but
alas someone was bound to fall and my XX chromosomes insisted that
it was me. I promised myself at the beginning though, that in the event
of such an ordeal I would back out, no questions asked. To my surprise,
I actually did.
From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
04/12/06 09:55 AM
Hey, what’s up—I realize this is going to catch you off guard
and I apologize for that. I’ve been thinking now might be a
good time to end this. It’s not for a bad reason at all but
rather a good one in that I can sense my interest in you heading in a new direction. I realize though, this was never meant
to be that, and I think it might be best to pull out before
things get complicated. We’re always going to travel in the
same social circle and run into each other on many occasions
and I don’t want to risk it ever being awkward. I enjoy your
company (amongst other things) and look forward to a continued friendship.
I hope this doesn’t seem cold or formal over e-mail. I know in
most cases such things should take place over the phone or in
person, but in our case I think that might make it more uncomfortable. We can talk though, if you like—I just wanted to
get it all out here first. Please don’t be weirded out—just be flattered. You’re attractive, successful, fun, and all those other clichéd things women tend to like in men ;)
The Aftermath
Sometimes you send a breakup message and know that you may
never hear back. This was not one of those. I honestly expected a
reply—not a complicated one, just a quick acknowledgment of what
I had said and an acceptance of my friendship. A little more than
twenty-four hours later, I was frustrated when I hadn’t heard anything. More amusing than any response he could have sent though, is
me hashing the situation out with my friend Elise. WARNING: You
are about to witness the breakdown of inexplicable male behavior by
two overanalytical, occasionally conniving members of the female
From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
4/13/06 02:08 PM
Whoa, this is really honest . . . in a good way. It sounds totally
casual and nice, and just simple. It sounds like you like him
but not in a scary way. I’m rather shocked he hasn’t replied.
If he doesn’t reply, he’s truly a dick. And he’s the one who will
make it awkward. I can’t imagine why he wouldn’t reply to
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this. You’re making things really easy for him. How do you feel
about it?
From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
4/13/06 02:09 PM
I’m happy with it. I think it’s all those things you said, and his
response wouldn’t have to be deep. It could be “Thanks for
this. I appreciate your understanding that I don’t want to be in
anything that resembles a relationship right now, but I would
like to stay friends.”
From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
4/13/06 02:14 PM
That’s the thing . . . ANYTHING. An acknowledgement.
“Thanks for your honesty.” “Sounds good.” Even a “Thanks for
this. We’re on the same page.” I hope for his sake that he’s home
sick or something. But even if it’s awkward, which it totally will
be now, YOU shouldn’t feel awkward. I mean, if you do, you
should feel awkward FOR him.
From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
4/13/06 02:21 PM
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I do believe at the stroke of midnight tonight this automatically becomes fodder for the book?
From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
4/13/06 02:24 PM
Midnight is being generous. Perhaps a chapter entitled: “Even
when you try to be mature and let guys off the hook, they act
like pussies anyway.” Do you like it?
From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
4/13/06 02:27 PM
Brilliant! It will be followed up with a subhead section: “What
he could have/should have written to me”. And I will include
all of your very simple, one-sentence suggestions. Let the record show that he is the only man who may appear in the book
who knew the entire time that I had been commissioned to
write aforementioned book at the time of official blow-off.
From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
4/13/06 02:44 PM
If he wanted to be in the book why didn’t he just say so?
Since he knew you were writing a book about LETTER
WRITING, and still didn’t reply, then all’s fair in love and
book publishing.
Now, to his credit he did eventually write me the short response I
had hoped for. He sent it on April 18 at 9:40 a.m.—six days later.
I had given up on hearing from him after the third. He sent four
sentences saying that he respected where I was coming from, etc.
The length of the e-mail didn’t bother me at all, but the time did:
five days/four sentences. That’s an invalid equation enabling me to
give him a hard time. Plus, by that point he was already 105 hours
and 40 minutes past the keep-him- out- of-the-book deadline.
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How to Tell a Man You No
Longer Love Him
BY S AR A H BE RNH AR DT ( 1 8 4 4 –1 9 2 3 )
Sixteen-year-old Sarah Bernhardt, portrait by Nadar
Paris-born actress Sarah Bernhardt was a sensation on the stage and
had an equally absorbing love life. She worked as a courtesan before
her acting career took her all over Europe in the 1870s. Her long list
of lovers includes the Belgian Prince de Ligne, novelist Jean Richepin,
artist Gustave DorГ©, and countless actors. One of those actors was
Jean Mounet-Sully (1841–1916) whom she met in 1872. “The Divine
Sarah,” as she came to be known, made the first move, inviting him to
meet her that same night. The two had a tumultuous affair, which was
strained by Sarah’s refusal to commit. When it finally ended, Jean had
trouble accepting her position and continued to ask where their relationship was going. She wrote this letter to clear things up.
As far as I know I have done nothing to justify such behavior, I’ve told you
distinctly that I do not love you any longer. I shook your hand and asked you to
accept friendship in place of love. Why do you reproach me? Surely not for a lack
of frankness. I have been loyal: I have never deceived you; I have been yours
completely. It’s your fault that you have not known how to hold on to what is yours.
Besides, dear Jean, you must realize that I am not made for happiness. It is
not my fault that I am constantly in search of new sensations, new emotions.
That is how I shall be until my life is worn away. I am just as unsatisfied in
the morning after, as I am the night before. My heart demands more excitement
than anyone can give it. My frail body is exhausted by the act of love. Never is
it the love I dream of.
At this moment I am in a complete prostration. My life seems to have stopped.
I feel neither joy nor sorrow. I wish you could forget me. What can I do? You must
not be angry with me. I’m an incomplete person but a good one at heart. If I
could prevent your suffering I would do so!!! But you demand my love and it is
you who have killed it!
I beg you, Jean, let us be friends.
It’s remarkable how little control we have over our emotions. The
brain that causes you to say to yourself, “No, you can’t think this
way,” or “You must feel that way,” is the same brain that deliberately
disobeys and insists you suffer in the process. This is especially true
with the drug of an emotion we call love. Hence the expression “falling in love.” We don’t call it “casually strolling into love” or “making
an appointment with love,” because basically you trip, you fall, and
you are now facedown in the mud, trying to get your bearings. It’s
great if the other person is rolling around in the mud with you, but
few things are messier then being stuck there by yourself in unrequited chaos.
In The Book of Love: Writers and Their Love Letters (Plume/Penguin,
1992), author Cathy N. Davidson writes: “Writing such letters, we
often come to appreciate our own complexities and understand that
the real purpose of writing letters is to fall a little bit in love with
our self. In this process, the actual beloved is just an innocent bystander.” I find this especially true of writing to someone you’ve
fallen for who hasn’t fallen for you. It’s a very selfish thing to do. Your
feelings have spiraled out of control and, by confessing, you’re insisting the other person deal with them too. Your assertion of love is
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unauthorized. That being said, I do think selfishness in moderation
is necessary. After all you’re not much good to other people if you
can’t look out for yourself, so writing unauthorized love letters is
like any other seemingly insurmountable challenge—you never know
unless you try. Except sometimes you do know and you still have
to try.
I wrote the following letter when it was authorized, or when I
thought it was authorized. I was dating a man I adored and by all appearances he was right there with me. He never kept me waiting, called on
cue, and was rehearsed and ready at all times to perform some gentlemanly gesture, give an uncanny compliment, or flatter me silently with
a gripping stare. Admittedly, I fell at lightning speed. There was no
reason not to. As Christmas came closer I wanted to write him something as amazing as I thought he was.
I’m sure you’ve guessed where this is going—straight down. Shortly
after I wrote the letter but before I gave it to him, he started backing away slowly, as if he could smell my serenity. The calls came less
frequently. The e-mails missed their romantic mark and soon stopped
altogether. I immediately went into a senseless scramble to try and
figure out what went wrong and fix it fast. Finally, after almost a week
of not hearing from him—as you all know that’s the equivalent of
three long lifetimes when you’ve got it bad—I received an e-mail from
him (see The Breakup Letter on page 62) telling me he was getting
back together with his ex-girlfriend. Against my will it ended, and I
was stuck with my stupid feelings and my stupid letter that went undelivered.
When all was said and done the one thing that mystified me most
was that I hadn’t heard of this girlfriend. He and I were very open
when it came to stories, both good and bad, about our exes. So the fact
that I knew nothing of her, when she was clearly still in his life, baffled
me. I was to find out soon enough that the reason I hadn’t heard of her
was because she was not his ex-girlfriend, bur rather his full-time,
“exclusive” girlfriend the entire time. I imagine I was one final fling
before they moved in together. On second thought, I probably shouldn’t
fool myself into thinking I was his final fling. The way I found all this
out: He told me. He didn’t realize it, but he did.
The way the story goes is that I took my exit and stayed away for a
little more than two months. I dated someone almost immediately
to aid in the get-over-it process—that’s actually not a good idea.
Against all laws of logic, my feelings stayed steadfast and strong.
One day I reread the letter I had written him and could still support
every word with my full body weight. For whatever it was worth I
wanted him to have it. There was no one else on the planet Earth I
could give it to.
I e-mailed asking what he’d been up to—trying to veil my intentions behind the disguise of friendship. Seeing straight through that, he
wrote back and suggested we get together, which I was hoping he’d do.
It came as no surprise to me that we had a great time. Conversation
came easily to us, as did laughter and passion. When his relationship
situation came up, he said that, just as things hadn’t worked out so
many times before with this girlfriend, they weren’t working out again.
I believed him because I wanted to. He also told me a lot more about
how this relationship came to be and why it wasn’t going anywhere—
that’ll be important in a minute.
As planned, the evening ended with me giving him the letter. I told
him I had written it before and still wanted him to have it. The one
thing that I didn’t do, or consider doing, was change the letter. It was
still written as if everything had worked out, which I knew could be
daunting, but it was too honest in its original form for me to tamper
with. I knew the response would be one of two extremes. There’s the
Hollywood version: He reads the letter in the car, walks back up to my
door, and we consummate the fact that we feel the same way with
unbridled ferocity. Then there’s the independent film version: I watch
him drive away, know I’ll never hear from him again, and figure out
later what had gone on through a series of fluorescent flashbacks. This
chapter has already lent itself to the latter.
In the days that followed, the imminent overanalyzation took place
and I rethought everything he had told me about his girlfriend. Circles
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didn’t fit into squares. This was different than the story I had originally
been given. I mentally replayed our first round, inserted these new
findings, and saw what had gone on. In him telling me why it wouldn’t
work out, I realized that that he already knew it would. Finding out it
had to end was upsetting. Finding out it was never real to begin with,
even more so. It hurt the hell out of me.
One might think discovering this would make for instant regret
and a longing to retract the letter, but no. I just existed temporarily in
that paradoxical purgatory where nothing, not even the reality of another person’s actions, can turn your feelings off. Part of me held out
hope that the man I handed the letter to might someday give it to the
man I wrote it for. If it could make that man smile on a rainy day then
yes, it was worth it.
The Unauthorized Love Letter
December 2003
Dear R——
I hope this finds you happy and ready to end the year on a
good note. This year for me was clarifying—I learned a lot
about myself as I was forced to rely on my own survival skills
and was reminded of the importance of exercising optimism
when things don’t go my way. But to my unexpected pleasure
the one thing that did go my way this year was you. You were
just a pleasant memory of mine and somehow materialized
and became an authentic and very intense presence. The opportunities to get to know you and wake up tangled in your
warm body were pleasantries I had once hoped for but never
truly anticipated. I’m so grateful that you allowed me access
to you, and I thought it only fair that you know why I’m so
drawn to you. In all honesty, this letter is really a pathetic attempt on my part to project myself into your mind the way
you inadvertently projected yourself into mine. The following
is a list of some of your charming qualities—according to me.
I’m sure there’s a thousand more and I hope in time you’ll reveal them to me also. For now, these will have to do:
—First, I’m drawn to your steadfast ambitions—the ones
that keep you in constant motion, aching to improve upon
your already impressive accomplishments.
—Then there’s your modesty—you’re always content to reject the well-deserved compliments I give you regarding
how clever and attractive you are.
—Next, there’s your broad taste in music.
—I’m moved by your concern for your siblings—taking it upon
yourself to correct the mistakes your parents have made.
—And how could I not mention your brilliant body with every sinew and muscle exercised perfectly into place.
—I like your bottom lip—so good for biting.
—I’m grateful for the compliments you pay me at the most
unexpected moments.
—I’m a big fan of your right shoulder blade.
—Okay, I like the left one too.
—I appreciate how polite you are and how often you say
thank you.
—I love that you’re always you—whether we’re with your
friends, my friends, or if it’s just us.
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—I love when it’s just us.
—And then there’s the way you kiss me.
—Then there’s the way you make me ache.
—Then there’s the way you taste.
—Then there’s the way you feel.
—Then there’s the way you make me feel.
—Then there’s how tender you are.
—Then there’s how aggressive you are.
—And finally there’s your beautiful face—that mixes perfectly the novelties, expressions, and wonder of a boy with
all the temptations and certainties of a man. In case you
haven’t noticed, I’m quite taken with you. I wish you well
this year and always.
With adoration,
Be Specific
This is love you’re willing to humiliate yourself for—be more than
specific, be shameless. As English logician and philosopher Bertrand
Russell once said, “Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps
the most fatal to true happiness.”
The consensus among my girlfriends was that the letter I wrote was
nice but way too heavy. A woman would be able to handle something
like this but not a man. Ladies, I love you but I’m going to go ahead and
officially disagree. I’m sorry, men can’t handle what? Being told how
great they are? No, I’m sure they’re well equipped to handle that, and
I think women’s assumptions that they don’t need to hear it as often is
unfortunate. However, they are only equipped to hear it from women
they want to hear it from. The only problem with this letter is the
writer. It was me he didn’t like, not the letter. But I know if I had written a lighter version with the hopes of keeping him around a little longer, the same thing would have happened. Except I would have thought
to myself: If that was my only chance to tell him how I felt, then why didn’t I tell
him how felt?
l How to Start
I realize my circumstance was special and you
may be writing your letter to someone, a friend perhaps, with
whom you’ve never been romantic. In that case, or even the
case of falling for a casual acquaintance, open in a simple,
friendly way: “I hope you’re doing well,” or “It was great to see
you last night.” Follow up with a quick transition sentence such
as, “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you and decided
I would let you in on how I feel.” Then, let your love loose.
l Friendship Folly
Be honest with yourself about the reality of
friendship after the letter. If you can’t bear to be around the
person once you know they know how you feel, then it’s best
to be clear about that: “I never expected to feel this way and
certainly didn’t plan on disrupting our friendship, but I’m
afraid it’s gone that far.” If you think friendship is still viable: “I
realize it may take a while for us to recover from my sudden
admission, but our friendship is indescribably important to me
and I want to make sure we hold on to it.”
l Make Up Your Mind
Unauthorized love letters can be delivered in the midst of a relationship too. This could come
about in the event that you want to move forward and the
other person is content standing still. If you’ve reached your
breaking point and it’s time to come up with an articulate way
of saying, “Shit or get off the pot!” Then try something like:
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“This is not an ultimatum, it’s an invitation. I love you and am
inviting you into my life full-time.”
l Against the Odds
Just so you know, the house almost always wins here. I’ve never known of an unauthorized love
letter that actually accomplished its designated task. As I said
earlier, this is something you do for you. Why? I share with
you the content of a sign I once saw in a greeting card store:
“Twenty years from now you’ll regret the things you didn’t do
more than you’ll regret the things you did.”
Signing Off
Unauthorized love letters can end the same way regular love letters
do. You’ve already put it out there that you’ve fallen for them, so why
not end it with a bang?
✉ Farewell—farewell—come to me if you love me,
From George
Foster to Rufus Wilmot Griswold, a glorious and very dangerous way to end an unauthorized love letter (you’ll read about
these two in just a moment under Man-to-Man).
You can’t be as careless here as you would with an authorized love letter. Keep in mind (as if you could forget) this person is not enamored
with you and won’t read it with the same rose-colored glasses that an
established lover would. Chances are though, this person is in love
with him- or herself, so if you say enough nice things they’ll surely
overlook a few grammatical flaws.
How to Send
Sign it. Seal it. Deliver it. You need the other person’s undivided attention here and just the act of opening an envelope or unfolding a piece of
paper can remove someone from their world for a moment. Since this
is not something they’re expecting, seeing it squished between dozens
of e-mails could cause it to be overlooked or read in a rush.
If You Receive An Unauthorized Love Letter
Maybe it’s just me, but I think it’s nice to respond to these. Not easy,
but nice. Let me remind you that the one thing the sender wants to
know, above all else, is that you received the letter. Once they know
that, then they know everything. Your response doesn’t have to be as
detailed or intimate as theirs. Your responding is a sign of respect for
their feelings, and they’re less likely to harbor hope of being with you
someday if you’re up front with them. Otherwise they may think no
news is good news. Silence tends to breed hope. If you’re stuck, these
should help:
l If you’re single
“Wow, I don’t know what to say. I think
thank you is at the top of my list. Your letter was beyond flattering. I am undeserving of it, which makes it especially
hard for me to tell you that I don’t share your affection. It
would be incredibly inconsiderate for me to lead you to believe otherwise.”
l If you’re in a relationship
“I’ll admit I’m embarrassed by
all the kindnesses you wrote to me. It took a lot of courage for
you to say those things and I want you to know I recognize
that. The fact is though, I am very much in love with my girlfriend [boyfriend/husband/wife]. I am certain you will share
an extraordinary love with someone someday.”
One-shot Deal
Here’s the rule: You can send an unauthorized love letter one time
only. Let me assure you, you will be tempted to send two, three, or
twenty. You’ll be astonished at your own ability to convince yourself
that they couldn’t possibly have received the letter. If they had gotten
Return to Sender
the letter, then they’d be in your arms right now, right? A pack of evil
trolls must have intercepted it or, even worse, malicious dragons attacked the mailman. Poor mailman. Some cyberspace magician must
be rerouting all the e-mails. There is no other explanation! Unfortunately, the only explanation here is the one you don’t want to hear. In
my case you have to say to yourself firmly, but not cruelly and preferably out loud, “Samara, sweetheart, you handed it to him.”
I advocate these letters because you are entitled to your feelings; however, the other person is also entitled to theirs. If their feelings are not in
your favor, you must reverence that. When I was in high school, a good
guy friend of mine started receiving love confessions from a fellow classmate of ours. This girl was extremely shy. I was shocked that she had it
in her to write the notes, but she wrote them. She wrote them on paper,
on napkins, on anything she could find. She would creep up behind him,
stick one in his hand, and walk away, saying nothing. It got to the point
where he wanted a restraining order. If I were to point this girl out to
you in a crowd and tell you someone wanted a restraining order against
her, you’d laugh out loud. Regardless, her incessant writing and refusal
to take no for an answer terrified him. He didn’t end up getting the restraining order—I think he said something to her mother. Needless to
say, they never came close to dating.
Reread and Reconcile
One of my favorite things about letters is they can be experienced and
re-experienced. The thoughts of one moment are preserved and you
can encounter them again as an older, hopefully wiser version of yourself. Case in point, the following letter. I went to a small high school and
thought I knew everyone, so it surprised me when I made a new friend
my senior year. He and I met working together after school, so there
was ample opportunity to get to know each other. I suspected he was
interested in me, but dismissed it readily as I didn’t want him to be. I was
happy being his friend. He then took a bold step forward and wrote this
in my yearbook:
June 1997
Hi Samara,
I can’t believe we never met before this year, but I’m glad we
finally did! I’ve grown to love you as a friend and hate to see
you run off to college. You are one of the most interesting
people I’ve met and I’ll always cherish the times we’ve had
together (Charlie Brown). I’m glad I’m leaving work because I
can’t stand it without you. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I
love you! There’s no way around it. You can’t run now that
you’ve read it you must accept it. Thank you for being so tolerant of me all this time and keep in touch.
After I read this I took it upon myself to e-mail him and explain that
he had gotten it all wrong. He actually didn’t love me. He didn’t know
me that well and couldn’t possibly love me. We continued to spend time
together platonically through the summer, but I was condescending on
several occasions as I felt the need to cure him of his interest in me.
Years later I was flipping though my yearbook and came across his
remarkably thoughtful and courageous message. I also (unfortunately)
remembered my reaction to it. Will you pardon me for a moment
while I berate my seventeen-year-old self: You inconsiderate little
brat! Who the hell do you think you are, telling someone how they do
or do not feel? You told him he wasn’t in love with you because thinking that way made you feel better. It’s not always about you. Learn this
now and your love and life will be a lot easier. You can certainly show
more respect for him and his feelings than that.
Randy, will you please accept the long overdue apology of a tactless
teenager, the victim of her own insecurities no doubt, who has since
dismounted her high horse? And thank you. Thank you so much.
Return to Sender
I include this simply because it’s one of the most beautiful unrequited
love sentiments I’ve ever encountered, and I had to dust it off. It was
written to a man named Rufus Wilmot Griswold (1815–1857). In his
lifetime, Griswold was the editor of several poetry anthologies—the
most famous being Poets and Poetry of America (1842)—as well as being
the well-known nemesis of Edgar Allan Poe. Several years before Griswold walked among the literary elite, he was living in Albany, New
York (circa 1835), with a twenty-year-old journalist named George G.
Foster (d. 1856). After three years together, Griswold, famous for random acts of departure, grew antsy and left Albany. Foster wrote and
pleaded for his return.
I have loved often and deeply. My heart has burned itself almost to a charred cinder by the flames of passion which have
glowed within it—and yet I have never felt toward any human
being—man or woman—so strong and absorbing an affection as I bear to you.
Foster closed with, “Farewell—farewell—come to me if you love
me.” The two men never got back together, but Griswold held on to the
letter for the rest of his life.
How to Write to Your
Immortal Beloved
BY LUDWI G VA N BE E TH OVEN ( 1 7 7 0 –1 8 2 7 )
Illustration of Beethoven by Carl Jager
Marked by a smashing professional life and tragic personal life, German composer Ludwig van Beethoven still stands today as one of the
principal players in classical music. He moved to Vienna in his early
twenties and settled into his craft by writing several notable pieces.
His life took a drastic turn around the age of twenty-eight, when he
started going deaf. He contemplated suicide several times as his condition worsened. Ultimately though, he accepted the irrevocable physical challenge and continued to compose masterful, passionate music.
Beethoven never married. He had a penchant for women who were
married or unattainable in some other way. Around 1812, he fell madly
in love with a enigmatic woman who we know today only as Immortal Beloved. He wrote her a trilogy of letters over two days while staying at a Czech spa in Teplitz—he had gone there to recover from failing
health. These unalloyed letters were not only unauthorized but also
undelivered as they were found among his possessions after his death.
They were not unauthorized in the sense that she did not reciprocate
his love, by the way he writes it appears as though she did, but in that
their situation was impossible and they didn’t end up together. There
have been many guesses as to who this mysterious muse was—no absolute conclusions have been made. One strong contender is a married
woman he met in Vienna in 1810 named Antonie Brentano.
J ULY 6, 1812,
My angel, my all, my very self—Only a few words today and at that with
pencil (with yours)—Not till tomorrow will my lodgings be definitely
Return to Sender
determined upon—what a useless waste of time—Why this deep sorrow when
necessity speaks—can our love endure except through sacrifices, through not
demanding everything from one another; can you change the fact that you are
not wholly mine, I not wholly thine—Oh God, look out into the beauties of
nature and comfort your heart with that which must be—Love demands
everything and that very justly—thus it is to me with you, and to you with
me. But you forget so easily that I must live for me and for you; if we were
wholly united you would feel the pain of it as little as I—My journey was a
fearful one; I did not reach here until four o’clock yesterday morning. Lacking
horses the post-coach chose another route, but what an awful one; at the stage
before the last I was warned not to travel at night; I was made fearful of a
forest, but that only made me the more eager—and I was wrong. The coach
must needs break down on the wretched road, a bottomless mud road. Without
such postilions as I had with me I should have remained stuck in the road.
Esterhazy, traveling the usual road here, had the same fate with eight horses
that I had with four—Yet I got some pleasure out of it, as I always do when I
successfully overcome difficulties—Now a quick change to things internal from
things external. We shall surely see each other soon; moreover, today I cannot
share with you the thoughts I have had during these last few days touching my
own life—If our hearts were always close together, I would have none of these.
My heart is full of so many things to say to you—ah—there are moments
when I feel that speech amounts to nothing at all—Cheer up—remain my
true, my only treasure, my all as I am yours. The gods must send us the rest,
what for us must and shall be—Your faithful Ludwig
You are suffering, my dearest creature—only now have I learned that letters
must be posted very early in the morning on Mondays to Thursdays—the only
days on which the mail-coach goes from here to K.—You are suffering—Ah,
wherever I am, there you are also—I will arrange it with you and me that I
can live with you. What a life!!! Thus!!! Without you—pursued by the
goodness of mankind hither and thither—which I as little want to deserve
as I deserve it—Humility of man towards man—it pains me—and when I
consider myself in relation to the universe, what am I and what is He—whom
we call the greatest—and yet—herein lies the divine in man—I weep when
I reflect that you will probably not receive the first report from me until
Saturday—Much as you love me—I love you more—But do not ever conceal
yourself from me—good night—As I am taking the baths I must go to bed—
Oh God—so near! So far! Is not our love truly a heavenly structure, and also
as firm as the vault of Heaven?
Though still in bed, my thoughts go out to you, my Immortal Beloved, now
and then joyfully, then sadly, waiting to learn whether or not fate will hear
us—I can live only wholly with you or not at all—Yes, I am resolved to
wander so long away from you until I can fly to your arms and say that I am
really at home with you, and can send my soul enwrapped in you into the land
of spirits—Yes, unhappily it must be so—You will be the more contained since
you know my fidelity to you. No one else can ever possess my heart—never—
never—Oh God, why must one be parted from one whom one so loves. And yet
my life in V is now a wretched life—Your love makes me at once the happiest
and the unhappiest of men—At my age I need a steady, quiet life—can that
be so in our connection? My angel, I have just been told that the mail-coach
goes every day—therefore I must close at once so that you may receive the
letter at once—Be calm, only by a clam consideration of our existence can we
achieve our purpose to live together—Be calm—love me—today—yesterday—
what tearful longings for you—you—you—my life—my all—farewell. Oh
continue to love me—never misjudge the most faithful heart of your beloved.
ever thine
ever mine
ever ours
4 Letters of Gratitude
What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend?
—Paul Gerhardt
Few emotional glories compare with unscheduled moments of unabashed
gratefulness—those sweet seconds you come to realize that someone
you know well or barely know at all has done something incredibly
thoughtful, helpful, remarkably unselfish and you are the beneficiary,
whether you deserve it or not. It could be the gift they gave or the fact
that they drove all night to deliver it. It could be the umbrella they held
over your head or that they watched the kids while you had to run out
quickly. It could be the kind words they offered before you walked onstage or the hug they gave you afterwards. Whatever it was, it momentarily improved your life and they asked for nothing in return.
I liken gratefulness to helplessness. For a moment you are helpless in
the face of someone else’s kindness and you don’t have the words to
explain how much their actions really mean. It’s good to be helpless
sometimes. It serves as a gentle reminder that we really can’t get by
without each other. Truth be told, my favorite moments of gratitude
are the ones that will never make their way to paper—those exchanged
between strangers on the street. Naturally, when you know someone
well enough to write and embellish your thank-you, you should do so as
soon as possible.
I nominate “thank you” to be recognized as the second most important
phrase in the English language (you nominate the first). Let there be no
fear of overusing this phrase, and let there be no limits as to whom you
extend it to. Let there also be no limits concerning thank-you letters—
no limits to the occasions for which you write them and no maximum
number of times you write them. Don’t restrict yourself to only writing
thank-you notes after receiving expected gifts—birthdays, weddings,
holidays, etc.—but also after receiving unexpected gifts—impromptu
car rides home, solid pieces of advice, help moving into your new apartment. And remember, an excuse to write someone and thank them
doesn’t have to be reserved for any particular event or service—you can
always thank someone for just being them. Gratitude is contagious, may
it infect us all.
Believe it or not, this chapter is more personal to me than any of
the others. These letters feel so strange to show, because all I have
in the way of thank-you notes are the ones that have been written to
me. The ones I write are written by hand and given away for good.
The people who’ve written here have been more than generous and
this feels like the “See How Great Samara Is” chapter. I assure you,
this is not my intention, and encourage you to think much more
highly of these featured writers.
To start, I leave you in the hands of my very good friend Lori.
We’ve been friends since freshman year of college, and no one in
my life has been more consistent with sending gratitude-inspired
correspondence. Each time we spend a weekend together it’s followed up with a thank-you card, and several times a year I receive
an unsolicited “just thinking about you” or “something reminded
Letters of Gratitude
me of you” card. They arrive, always written by hand and usually
with a much-appreciated inspirational saying on the front. This has
not changed in ten years—what has changed is my gifts to her have
gotten better.
The Thank-you Letters
August 1999
My dearest Samara—
What a pleasure it was for you to grace my twenty-first party!
I hope your trip to see Daniel one last time was safe and exciting. Thank you for the Swedish Fish and the makeup case. I
love the box. So far I’ve used the “fashion” lipstick and I love
the way it shimmers. Thanks again. Good luck this semester
with grades, boys, and the paper. Keep in touch.
Be Specific
Be short and specific. Thank-you notes need not be long and complicated, just enthusiastic. They can follow this basic formula: Mention
the place, the gift, and the next time.
l The Place
Start off with saying how great it was to see them
at whatever place: “Thank you for meeting me for lunch.” “I’m
so glad you came to my party.” “Thank you for sharing my wedding day with me.” If there was no meeting place, then mention
the missed one: “I’m sorry you weren’t able to make your way
out here this year. You were missed very much! Your thoughtful
bouquet of flowers arrived safe and sound and continues to
brighten up the living room.”
l The Exception
Some gifts arrive like clockwork every year
from relatives we never see. In this case, start with the other
person’s well being then focus on the gift: “Aunt Susan, I hope
you had a wonderful year and that Trixie has stopped scratching up your curtains.”
l The Gift, If You Liked It
Then your job is easy. Mention
the gift and how you’ve used it. “Thank you for the gorgeous
sweater—I’ve worn it three times already.” “Thank you for
the Apple gift certificate—I’ve added fifty great songs to my
l The Gift, If You Didn’t Like It
You don’t have to go on and
on, just mention it once and then center your excitement around
the giver instead: “Thank you for the Sigmund Freud action
figure, and especially thank you for coming to the barbecue.
Letters of Gratitude
It was a pleasure to catch up and to hear all about your trip to
Greece—your tan looks fabulous.”
l Next Time
End with a nod toward the next time you’ll see
each other. “I look forward to seeing you as soon as school
starts.” “Let’s make plans again soon.” “Please, make sure to
stop by the next time you’re in town.” If it’s a person you
know you won’t see anytime soon you can allude to the next
phone call or the next holiday/occasion you’ll be in touch.
l Thank You for the Random Act of Kindness
These types
of thank-you notes don’t follow any rules, but it’s hard to go
wrong with them as they’re rarely expected. “Thank you for
listening to me last night. I was in terrible shape and you were
kind to lend your ear.” “Thank you for helping me change my
tire in the pouring rain. I don’t know what I would have done
without you.”
Signing Off
вњ‰ With deep gratitude and all my best wishes, Written in
November 1998—a thank-you letter from famed Cosmopolitan
editor, Helen Gurley Brown, to the surgeon that performed her
breast cancer surgery.
вњ‰ I shall always be infinitely grateful to you. From savvy
Sarah Bernhardt to Jean Mounet-Sully (the same man whose
heart she broke on page 67). In November of that same year
(1874) they came to an understanding and she wrote a short letter thanking him for forgiving her and ending in this way.
вњ‰ Affectionately, Devotedly, Lovingly, Faithfully yours, As per
Emily Post (featured at the end of this chapter).
вњ‰ Gratefully, Thankfully, Appreciatively, Other options along
the same lines.
✉ Best wishes, All best, All my best, Best, The “best” ways
to end.
As you’ll see in a moment, my recommendation for sending thank-you
notes is to handwrite them. Grammar is more easily overlooked in
handwritten notes, as handwriting takes longer for the eyes to navigate
through than type. Not to mention the recipient may find it foreign to
receive a handwritten note and the gesture alone will distract them. Just
try to get the basics right—spelling, periods, capitals, and commas.
Admittedly, I’m a horrible speller and will sometimes type thank-you
notes out to make sure everything is spelled correctly before I copy it
How to Send
Always. Yes, always. One more time: Always write these by hand. In
writing by hand, you immediately humble yourself, and from this unassuming position you can offer your most sincere thanks. Then hand
them over or mail them—thank you letters alone should keep the
U.S. postal service up and running.
I received a preprinted thank-you note for a wedding gift once.
The stationery was pretty as was the script, but it was cold, especially in knowing that everyone else had received the same generic
message. I know it’s daunting when you have a large group of thankyou letters to write, but it’s still important that each person receive
their own individual message. If they were worthy of an invite, they
are worthy of a thank-you. If you had 1,000 guests attend your wedding, then the first administrative task you should perform as a married couple is to sit down and write 500 thank-you cards each—of
course, make it fun and take sex breaks after every 100. Okay fine,
fi fty.
If You Receive a Thank-you Letter
Enjoy. There’s no need to thank for the thank-you, as the original gift
was your act of kindness. If you were especially moved by the note you
can send a quick e-mail letting the other person know you received it
and appreciate it.
Letters of Gratitude
Thank You for the Thank-You
Of course rules were made to be broken, and if you want to handwrite someone a thank-you for the thank-you then all you risk is ending up in a cycle of complimentary correspondence. There are worse
This thank-you for the thank-you note is from an extraordinary
woman: The Reverend Anne Richards. We walked in each other’s way
for three years, as she was one of the presiding priests at the church I
attend. Her kindness is a constant presence and her insights shrewd. It
was her unshakable voice that lent comfort to me and the other emotionally exhausted congregants gathered on the National Day of Prayer
following September 11—we assembled two miles from Ground Zero.
When the time came for her to move on, I wrote her a thank-you-forall-you’ve-done letter and she replied courteously:
Split-Second Letters
I just came up with the name for this subversion of thank-you letters—
I hope you like it. We, as human beings, move in and out of each
other’s lives all the time, and there are many wonderful people who
we know for only a short while—in the grand scheme of things, about
a split second. It could be a teacher, fellow student, boss, or acquaintance of some sort, and you’ve come to admire their work ethic,
sense of humor, or you just ended up sharing coffee with them several
times and enjoyed their company. Although your friendship may not
go the distance and you won’t necessarily keep in touch, a note thanking them for the temporary role they played in your life is thoughtful
and will be remembered. I recommend these especially when leaving
a job. Thanking a boss who played the role of mentor or a fellow coworker for their guidance and wishing them well will keep you in
each other’s good graces for a long time, and this can come back to
help you.
The unexpected and very considerate note below is from a sorority
sister of mine. Yes, I was in a sorority (simmer down back there). Despite the bad rap they get, I’d list it as one of the more positive experiences of my life—especially my senior year when I was president.
Sorority girls, the ones I knew anyway, are very good at sending each
other notes of encouragement. This came from one sister I didn’t
know that well. She and I got along but hadn’t spent much time together outside the group. She wrote this following at a retreat everyone had gone on but that I was unable to attend:
Letters of Gratitude
How to Express Your Utmost
Gratitude in Ways You
Never Thought of
— BY E M I LY P OST ( 1 8 7 3 –1 9 6 0 )
Illustration by James Montgomery Flagg
For more than eighty years, the name Emily Post has been synonymous
with etiquette, as she literally wrote the book on it. She was born
Emily Price in October 1873 in Baltimore, Maryland. She was educated
privately and traveled extensively. In 1892, she married a banker named
Edwin Post. They later divorced and she wrote whimsical novels about
European and American society to help support her two young sons,
Edwin and Bruce. In 1922, she wrote Etiquette in Society, in Business, in
Politics, and at Home (later retitled Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Use)
and it was a runaway hit—going through ten editions in her lifetime.
She went on to host a radio program and write a syndicated newspaper
One might expect the mother of etiquette to be somewhat stuffy, but
the exact opposite is true. Emily Post was a lighthearted optimist and
believed proper etiquette was a means for everyone to enjoy life to the
fullest. She said, “Manner is personality—the outward manifestation of
one’s innate character and attitude toward life.” Extending a thank-you
is certainly one of the many ways to positively manifest yourself. This is
a small sample of the thank-you letters that appear in chapter twentyseven of Etiquette, entitled “Notes and Shorter Letters.”
Letters of Thanks for Wedding Presents
Very Intimate
Dear Aunt Kate,
Really you are too generous—it is outrageous of you—but, of course, it is the
most beautiful bracelet! And I am so excited over it, I hardly know what I am
doing. You are too good to me and you spoil me, but I do love you, and it, and
thank you with all my heart.
Dear Mrs. Neighbor,
The tea cloth is perfectly exquisite! I have never seen such beautiful work. I
appreciate your lovely gift more than I can tell you, both for its own sake and
for your kindness in making it for me. Don’t forget, you are coming in on
Tuesday afternoon to see the presents.
Lovingly, Mary.
Letters of Gratitude
For a Present Sent After the Wedding
Dear Mrs. Chatterton:
The mirror you sent us is going over our drawing-room mantel just as soon as
we can hang it up! It is exactly what we most needed and we both thank you
ever so much. Please come in soon to see how becoming it will be to the room.
Yours affectionately, Mary Smith Smart lington.
Thanks for Christmas or Other Presents
Dear Lucy:
I really think it was adorable of you to have a chair like yours made for me. It
was worth adding a year to my age for such a nice birthday present. Jack says I
am never going to have a chance to sit in it, however, if he gets there first, and
even the children look at it with longing. At all events, I am perfectly enchanted with it, and thank you ever and ever so much.
Affectionately, Sally.
Dear Uncle Arthur:
I know I oughtn’t to have opened it until Christmas, but I couldn’t resist the
look of the package, and then putting it on at once! So I am all dressed up in
your beautiful chain. It is one of the loveliest things I have ever seen and I
certainly am lucky to have it given to me! Thank you a thousand—and then
more—times for it.
The Bread and Butter Letter
When you have been staying over Sunday, or for longer, in someone’s
house, it is absolutely necessary that you write a letter of thanks to
your hostess within a few days after the visit.
From a Young Woman to a Formal Hostess After a House Party
Dear Mrs. Norman:
I don’t know when I ever had such a good time as I did at Broadlawns. Thank you
a thousand times for asking me. As it happened, the first persons I saw on Monday
at the Towns’ dinner were Celia and Donald. We immediately had a threesome
conversation on the wonderful time we all had over Sunday. Thanking you again
for your kindness to me,
Very sincerely yours,
Grace Smalltalk
To a Formal Hostess After an Especially Amusing Week-End
Dear Mrs. Worldly:
Every moment at Great Estates was a perfect delight. I am afraid my work at the
office this morning was down to zero in efficiency; so perhaps it is just as well, if I
am to keep my job, that the average week-end in the country is different—very.
Thank you all the same, for the wonderful time you gave us all, and believe me
Faithfully yours, Frederick Bachelor.
From a Man Who Has Been Ill and Convalescing at a Friend’s House
Dear Martha:
I certainly hated taking that train this morning and realizing that the end
had come to my peaceful days. You and John and the children, and your place,
which is the essence of all that a “ home” ought to be, have put me on my feet
again. I thank you much—much more than I can say for the wonderful
goodness of all of you.
5 Difficult to Say,
Even in a Letter
One of the hardest things in life is having words in your
heart that you can’t utter.
—James Earl Jones
Words are our allies and our enemies. Sometimes they show up on
call, just in time to make someone laugh or lend emotional aid when
it’s needed. Other times they abandon us and we are left stuttering—
we can feel what we want to say but have no access to the means.
For the most part, the problem of coming up short is alleviated
when writing letters because you have ample time to think about what
you’d like to say. But there are certain circumstances when it’s nearly
impossible to express genuine contrition or sorrow with mere words.
In these times, it’s still important to take a deep breath and try. Unlike other letters that are difficult to write—such as breakup and
good-bye letters—because of how the reader will react, these letters
are a great challenge for the writer who may not even know where
to begin. In this case the writer needs to get over their insecurities for
the sake of the reader who wants—probably needs—words of comfort. In both apology and sympathy letters you have the daunting task
of looking for words that bandage a wound. You have a bit more control
over this when writing apology letters—since you were the one at
fault; you are the one who can heal. With sympathy letters you do the
best you can to let the other person know you’re there.
Apologizing is a form of art. A masterpiece of an apology can completely alter the state of a relationship. The catch is you have to mean
it. We’ve seen this scenario in sitcoms countless times: A man faces a
woman and says, “I’m sorry.” She asks, “For what?” He has no idea.
Seriously, if you don’t know why you’re apologizing, then don’t apologize. If you think you shouldn’t have to apologize, again don’t. Apologies only work if they’re initiated with words and followed up by
actions. Dishing out an empty apology just for the sake of pacifying
the other person is only going to temporarily solve the problem. It’ll
be back. A genuine apology means you’ve decided what you did was
wrong, you’re willing to admit it, and also willing to work on it internally. If you apologize with words and not actions, then you will find
yourself at square one again and again. Apologies, however, must begin with words—we can’t skip straight to the actions. Whether spoken or written, we have to fully participate in the pride-swallowing
ritual. Apologies on paper are straightforward and clear—they come
close to being as perfect as possible.
I’ve written several apology letters, but it’s a series of apologies I
wrote after being fi red for the fi rst time in my life that stands out the
most. I moved to New York City immediately after college in the summer of 2001 and was an intern at O: The Oprah Magazine. My interest at
the time was fashion writing, so I worked in the fashion department. I
learned quickly, there were not many writing opportunities for interns but lots of calling in and returning clothes for photo shoots. It
was fun regardless, as I spent my days amidst designer dresses, sophisticated jewelry, and expensive shoes. Duties changed all the time
and I was never sure what to expect. Toward the end of August, the
Difficult to Say, Even in a Letter
fashion department was preparing for the forthcoming fashion week
and I was assigned the task of making sure all the editors in my department were invited to the fashion shows. Here’s how this works: Magazines have to call or fax design houses to let them know they’re
interested in seeing the collections. I was given a schedule of every
runway show for that season. I knew the whens and wheres of Calvin
Klein, Donna Karan, and Betsey Johnson, to name a few. This was by
far my favorite assignment—I was a kid in a couture candy store. The
market editor—a stylish, frank woman who I guessed to be in her late
twenties—was the one person I hadn’t worked with yet and she was
directing me. She gave me the master list and highlighted every show
I was to request tickets for. As I typed up the request letters on her
behalf and faxed them out, I started to wonder about the shows that
weren’t highlighted—who gets to go to those? My curiosity and/or
excitement must have been plain on my face as another editor passing
by the fax machine asked me what I was doing. I told her and confessed
that this list was one of the coolest things I had ever seen. After we
spoke for a while, I snuck in my question about the shows that didn’t
make the cut. She gave me the greatest answer: “You could probably
request tickets for yourself for some of those.” I was hoping she’d say
that! It had certainly crossed my mind, but that was the green light
I was looking for.
When I went back to my desk to type up a fresh batch of letters,
I wrote a few for myself. I explained that the market editor wouldn’t
be able to attend this season and she was sending me in her place.
I am, by the way, laughing at myself right now. Really, what the hell
was I thinking? I know what I was thinking: I had seen one too
many movies about having to be sneaky and clever if you were ever
going to leave the mailroom. Once I fi nished faxing, I was sent out
to fetch bras and pantyhose for a photo shoot the next day. As
soon as I got back, I walked into the market editor’s offi ce to give
her a progress report and she cut me off immediately with “We have
to talk about this.” She was holding one of the notes I had written
and forgot to fetch from the printer. Needless to say, she was not
amused. She didn’t yell, but still effectively drilled home that this
was incredibly inappropriate and an embarrassment to both her and
the magazine. Still blinded by my naГЇvГ©tГ©, I was surprisingly comfortable defending myself. I told her about the other editor with
whom I had spoken at the fax machine. She told me it didn’t matter,
as that editor was not my superior. I explained that this was merely
an attempt to learn about all aspects of the fashion industry. She
told me had I been patient enough she would have taken me to a
show. That comment frustrated me because I knew she didn’t even
know my name. We were both pretty determined—she to fire me
and me to stand up for myself. When she finally asserted that this
would be my last day, my attempt to swallow my tears was futile. If
leaving the office in a mess of tears isn’t humiliating enough, then
not being able to hold back on the subway will humble anyone. As
soon as I got home I called the assistant fashion editor who had
hired me and who I worked with most often. She, of course, had
heard the story by then, and I apologized frantically between deep
breaths. She was sweet to say that she accepted my apology and was
glad to have met me. That call was supposed to make me feel much
better than it did. I had to do more. I sat down and typed eight individual, formal apology letters to the eight people I worked with:
the creative director, market editor, beauty editor, assistant beauty
editor, assistant fashion editor, assistant managing editor, accessories assistant, and my fellow intern. I dropped the letters off at the
office the next day and walked away mourning my career in publishing, which was clearly a lost cause. The letters, to me, were the
only way to salvage some shred of dignity. Admittedly, I can be very
My career picked back up the next day. I received a phone call from
the editor who had encouraged me at the fax machine. She told me she
was very sorry for the way things had turned out and she had a friend
who hired interns at Harper’s Bazaar. I started at Bazaar a week later
and never ventured past calling in and returning clothes for photo
shoots. A few weeks later I ran into the woman who fired me. I half
Difficult to Say, Even in a Letter
froze when I saw her and didn’t know whether to stand or run. She
smiled at me and said, “Hi, Samara.” If nothing else, I had accomplished one thing: she knew my name. Here are two of the eight letters I wrote. The first, is to the woman who hired me and the second
to the woman who fired me.
The Apology Letters
August 29, 2001
Dear C—,
It is incredibly embarrassing for me to have to write this, but
I know it is necessary. I am so sorry that I allowed my eagerness to cloud my judgment, and I cannot apologize enough for
any disgrace I brought to The Oprah Magazine. I honestly did
not realize the severity of the situation.
Above all else, I am so sorry to disappoint you. You have been
so kind to me, and I was anticipating our continued work together. You told me yours was a thankless job, and somehow
you muster up the energy to thank me and everyone else at
the end of the day. I admire that, and I believe you’ll infect
this industry with courtesy someday. I promise in the future
I will try and curtail my ambitions and wait for opportunities
to present themselves to me. Thank you for all your advice,
and, again, I am so sorry.
Best of luck,
August 29, 2001
Dear P—,
I am truly embarrassed by my recent actions, and I regret
placing you in such an awkward position. This is not an attempt to regain my status as an intern, but an offering of my
sincere apologies. I am sorry for betraying the trust that was
instilled in me and for any disgrace I brought to The Oprah
Magazine. My actions were motivated by serious impatience,
and I regret not being able to set that vice aside in order to
make a better decision. I ask that you please try to understand
that this was a mistake on my behalf and not something that
was done with malicious intent. I am grateful for the time I
did spend at The Oprah Magazine, and I assure you that I have
and will continue to put a great deal of thought into my wrongdoing.
On a more personal note, I am so sorry for ruining the
chance to get to know you and to work alongside you. Best of
luck in the future.
Sincere regards,
Be Specific
You need to know what you’re apologizing for and explain how that
came to be. Was it a misunderstanding? A bad day’s frustration aimed
in the wrong direction? Or were you just being a jerk?
l How to Start
First, swallow your pride. Then get right to
it. However you plan to say it, “I’m sorry/I apologize/I’m
completely worthless,” it should go right up front and come
no later than the second sentence. There’s no need to beat
around the bush, the sooner they know you’re apologizing
the better: “My behavior during the rehearsal dinner was
completely unacceptable. First, let me apologize and then
please let me explain.” You could also open with a confession
as to how you’re feeling: “I am truly embarrassed by my recent actions,” (as I did) or something like “I am humiliated
by my impromptu drunken display at your birthday party.”
l From Here on Out
Coming clean about what you did is important as is explaining what you’re going to do to avoid the
problem in the future. Sometimes it’s a simple matter of figuring out how to avoid a misunderstanding: “Next time I’ll listen
Difficult to Say, Even in a Letter
to your side of the story before I assume you went behind my
back.” If the problem runs deeper than a misunderstanding, a
forward moving plan is certainly necessary: “My jealousy has
gotten in our way many times before and now I’m willing to do
something about it, as you’ve never given me any reason not to
trust you.”
l Above all
What you should apologize for more than the
action is the negative emotions the action resulted in: “I’m
sorry we fought at the party, but more than that I’m sorry
I embarrassed you.” Or “It’s not the lies I want to take back
as much as the pain I caused you.” “I know how stressed
you’ve been recently and the last thing you needed was for
me to add to it.” If you’re not necessarily sorry for what you
did, but are very sorry for the way it affected the other
person, then that’s still an important part of an apology:
“I’m sorry you thought my comment was out of line, and
am so sorry it hurt your feelings. That certainly was not my
Signing Off
It can be difficult to find a fitting ending for apology letters. Sometimes
just signing your name is most appropriate, but if you’d like to give it a
вњ‰ Apologies,
apologies, A friend of mine ended an apology
e-mail this way when she didn’t answer an important question I
had asked quickly enough.
вњ‰ With sincerity and chagrin, I once ended an apology like
this and was fully forgiven.
✉ Sincerely sorry, I find “sincerely” by itself to be trite and overused, but when paired with sorry or “with sincerity,” as above, it
regains its meaning.
I’ll tell you something. The old-school computer I wrote these Oprah
letters on did not have spell-check, and me without spell-check is embarasing. In my attempt to retrieve the letters for this book I e-mailed
them to a new computer. As I opened the document I watched in horror as countless red lines came up. Five years later and this situation
still makes me close my eyes and shake my head. I corrected my spelling here—I’m sorry. I had to! I’m sure they got a kick out of it: “Well,
it’s a good thing we got rid of her. She can’t even spell!” If you’re writing a professional apology, do as I say and not as I did and try to make
them grammatically sound. As usual, personal letters can be a bit
more lax.
How to Send
It doesn’t matter. Get the message there as soon as possible.
If You Receive an Apology Letter
Try not to fight it too hard. If it moves you, then let it. If your acceptance of the apology is contingent on certain conditions, then put
those out there and see if you can compromise. The ball is in your
court now—just bear in mind that it will be your turn to apologize for
something someday.
How to Apologize to a Girl for Getting Her Name
Wrong in an Apology Letter
It’s difficult to go untouched when faced with an apology letter. Even
if you’re content being angry, the effort on someone else’s part is usually enough to snap you out of it. The apology letter below is one of the
nicest I’ve ever received—written by a man I went out with once and
didn’t hear from again. It arrived in my e-mail account roughly two
months after the fact. It’s the type of apology most girls dream of,
except for one miniscule problem: My name is wrong.
Difficult to Say, Even in a Letter
From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
09/26/05 10:34 PM
I imagine I’m about the last person you’re expecting to hear
from. I definitely did quite a disappearing act. I’m writing to
say I’m sorry. I didn’t act the way I expected of myself, and it
was very unfair to you. It was no reflection of you—I had a very
tough summer, and I was in pretty bad shape. Not an excuse, by
any measure, but at least an explanation. So for what it’s worth,
it was completely and utterly me. I think very highly of you,
which is why I thought you deserved this email. I hope you’re
doing well.
I wasn’t sure what to deal with first—the name thing or the apology
thing. The name thing actually didn’t bother me as much as I imagine
it would bother most. People screw my name up all the time. It’s
Sa-MA-ra by the way—rhymes with Sahara. If that doesn’t help try
saying “The Good Samaritan” without “the good” and the “tan.” Plus,
the words after the name were pretty close to perfect. I’ve been blown
off by plenty of men, not many of them attempt to apologize. I considered silently accepting the apology and not involving myself again,
however, pointing out his mistake was irresistible.
From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
09/27/05 4:07 PM
Actually, James Wolcott is the very last person I expected to
hear from today, (I keep hoping he’ll ask me to take over his
column) but you come in a close second. Naturally, I would
have liked for things to have worked out differently, but it is
what it is. I hope things level out for you. Samara (not Samantha J)
From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
09/27/05 9:31 PM
Oh dear god. Today-conscious-me wants to beat the CRAP
out of yesterday-delirious-tired-coming-home-from-work-me.
Now that I’ve officially humiliated myself, I have to leave New
York. Great, I really like it here. I hear Uzbekistan is nice this
time of year. (Two crazy things: 1) That wasn’t a joke—I actually have heard that Uzbekistan is nice this time of year. 2) My
friend went out with this Uzbek girl for a little while. Sort of a
mix between Russian and Asian. Completely unintelligible accent, and yet he smiled and nodded constantly. Go figure.)
So, I will do ANYTHING to erase the mark from my already marred record. I can drop off an envelope of cash in your
mailbox, but as I’m relatively poor—is there anything else I can
do to redeem myself?
Can you keep a secret? I love this response—a clever blend of contrition and nervous humor. Admittedly, I’m a sucker. I fell right back
in. Then a few days later I jumped right back out as I realized the word
ANYTHING was pretty limited. I wanted him to call me and he was
content disregarding that and making plans over e-mail, so our near
reunion ended with the good-bye letter on page 32. I assure you, the
fare-thee-well message had nothing to do with the comedy of error in
my name—that continues to make me laugh. The apology letter itself
still stands as one of my (and Samantha’s) favorites.
How to Apologize for Missing a Lunch Date
I include this because I got such a kick out of it. My friend Mickey
missed a lunch date we had planned—the hour came and went and I
didn’t hear from him. He’s a very considerate person and promotes the
Difficult to Say, Even in a Letter
standards of old-school etiquette—always walking closer to the street
and standing up every time a woman gets up from the table. So when
I didn’t hear from him, I knew it was more likely that he’d been abducted than he was standing me up. Late that afternoon he called to
apologize and I could hear how exhausted he was; he explained that
work had gotten out of control. I told him it was no problem and we
could reschedule. A few minutes later, he e-mailed me a formal, Emily
Post–caliber apology:
From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
07/21/06 4:16 PM
Dear Samara,
I apologize for missing our get-together this afternoon. I
haven’t even had time to sip a glass of water. Hope to be back
from Chicago Wednesday and will call then, Providence willing. A dinner treat is on me after you show me your offices
when we next meet. Again, I’m sorry for today. Do have a fun
cocktail hour and a lovely weekend.
Never Too Late
There is no expiration date on apologies. They can be accepted
days, weeks, months, and even years after the fact. Sometimes it
takes that long for the offender to realize the severity of what
they’ve done. I’ve been both the giver and receiver of apologies
years later and they are extraordinary. I’ve tried to get myself in
the habit of forgiving people whether they ask or not. If I don’t,
then I’m letting them weigh me down, and I can’t have that. Perhaps the person whose forgiveness you’d like feels the same way or
maybe they’re on the brink of forgiving and all they need is for you
to ask.
One of the Internet’s greater amenities is it’s made it remarkably
easy for us to find each other. Don’t be quick to assume that the other
person has forgotten about the incident or that the belated confession
would do no good. Chances are, if it still occurs to you, it still occurs
to them. Joey, the boy you stood up in seventh grade because he wasn’t
popular enough, has most likely gotten over it, but the unsolicited
apology could still brighten his day. Obviously not all cases are this
light, but usually the harder the apology the greater the healing—for
both people. The worst-case scenario: They don’t forgive you. That’s
not ideal, but it’s okay—take great comfort in the fact that you’ve forgiven yourself.
How to Apologize to Your Husband for
Being Short with Him as the Housework
Continues to Mount
BY K ATH E R I NE M A N SF I E LD ( 1 8 8 8 –1 9 2 3 )
Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp was born in Wellington, New Zealand. She was educated at Queen’s College in London and went on
to become a renowned short-story writer. She toyed with a number of
pen names and eventually settled on Katherine Mansfield. Always
looking for trouble in younger days, she had a number of love affairs
and abruptly married a teacher named G. C. Bowden at the age of
twenty-one, then left him the same evening. In autumn of 1911, she
met the man she’d be with the rest of her life—critic John Middleton
Murry. He was the editor of a magazine called Rhythm and fell in love
with her short story “The Woman at the Store,” which he published,
before he fell in love with the woman herself.
Difficult to Say, Even in a Letter
Although they wanted to be, they weren’t technically married
because Bowden (husband for a day) didn’t grant Katherine a divorce until 1918. The two had lived together for little more than a
year when this letter was written, and it seems that was the time
when the romance was dying down and the routine setting in. They
were going through what most couples go through: Katherine is
frustrated with the housework and frustrated with Jack for expecting her to do it—then she apologizes for being so easily frustrated.
Katherine died at the age of thirty-five of tuberculosis, and Jack
went on to publish a volume of their letters. Jack’s nickname for her
was Tig. He explained: “The name Tig by which she signed, and by
which I called her, grew out of a joint signature which we used for
some articles on the theater in �Rhythm’. We signed them, �The
Two Tigers.’ ”
Am I such a tyrant—Jack dear—or do you say it mainly to tease me? I
suppose Im a bad manager & the house seems to take up so much time if it
isn’t looked after with some sort of method. I mean . . . when I have to clean
up twice over or wash up extra unnecessary things I get frightfully impatient
and want to be working. So often, this week, Ive heard you and Gordon
talking while I washed dishes. Well, someone’s got to wash dishes & get food.
Otherwise—“there’s nothing in the house but eggs to eat.” Yes, I hate hate
HATE doing these things that you just accept as all men accept of their
women. I can only play the servant with very bad grace indeed. Its all very
well for females who have nothing else to do . . . & then you say I am a
tyrant & wonder because I get tried at night! The trouble with women like
me is—they can’t keep their nerves out of the job at hand—& Monday after
you and Gordon & Lesley have gone I walk about with a mind full of ghosts
of saucepans & primus stoveses & “will there be enough to go
round” . . . & you calling (whatever I’m doing Tig—isn’t there going to be
tea. Its five o’clock.) As though I were a dilatory housemaid! I loathe myself,
today. I detest this woman who “superintends” you and rushes about,
slamming doors & slopping water—all untidy with her blouse out & her
nails grimed. I am disgusted & repelled by the creature who shouts at you,
“you might at least empty the pail & wash out the tea leaves!” Yes, no
wonder you �come over silent’.
Oh, Jack, I wish a miracle would happen—that you would take me in your
arms & kiss my hands & my face & every bit of me & say “ its alright—you
darling thing, I quite understand.” All the fault of money, I suppose. But I love
you & feel humiliated & proud at the same time. That you dont see—that
you dont understand and yet love me puzzles me———
Will you meet me on Wednesday evening at the CafГ© Royale at about 10.30.
If you can’t be there let me know by Wednesday morning . . . Ill come back and
sleep at �57’ if I may even though I don’t live there. Jack—Jack—Jack
Your wife
Undoubtedly the most difficult situations in which you’re called to offer comfort are those surrounding death. At first, there always seems
to be no words. I’ve found though that once the initial shock and sadness pass, a plethora of memories breaks through and that’s where you
can get your words from—from the person who has gone.
My story of a sympathy letter comes from a death I still don’t
understand. It was one of my very good friends from high school,
Megan. She and I got to know each other while doing stage crew for
The King and I our freshman year and were inseparable until we
were seniors. We weren’t that great at keeping in touch when we
Difficult to Say, Even in a Letter
went to college, but when we managed to meet up over breaks it
was always wonderful, as if no time had gone by. I heard about her
through the grapevine too—I knew when she got her MA and when
she got married. She’s one who always makes me happy when I think
about her.
Megan died unexpectedly at the age of twenty-five. I found out
through e-mail. There’s something about e-mail that’s still not real to
me. Sometimes when I make plans over e-mail, I’m not always sure
the other person will show up. So my first reaction was not to believe
it, but then I thought who would pass along such horrible information
if it wasn’t true? My mother called later that day to tell me it was true.
There’s something about my mother’s voice that’s very real, and I lost
it. I cried until I couldn’t see straight, as if I had just seen Megan yesterday. When my tears simmered to sniffles, I went home and pulled
out pictures of Megan and with those spread out around me I wrote to
her mother. I sent the pictures and the letter overnight. Days later as I
walked through the receiving line, I saw my letter posted between all
the pictures.
The Sympathy Letter
May 2005
Ms. Lemke,
I am shocked and devastated at the sudden loss of your beautiful daughter and my once very good friend Megan. I am praying for you in this time of trial and am certain that you will
derive strength from the same place that Megan always did:
from God himself.
Although Megan and I have lost touch over the years, her
memory is strong with me. I remember well the endless laughter that she would implement with quirky inside jokes. I remember wishing I had her sense for fashion and jewelry. I
remember late nights up at camp and the two of us sharing our
sixteenth birthday together. She and I were two very tall girls
who always felt a little awkward about it and always managed
to convince each other that we were still okay because of it. I
was so proud of her as she plowed through school, so she could
meet her end goal of helping less fortunate people.
You raised your daughter to be strong, kind, and above all
faithful. We may never know why God decided to take her
from us at such a young age, but we should trust he has a reason and he’ll let us in on it someday. Ms. Lemke, you’re in my
thoughts and prayers and please let me know if you need anything at all.
In deepest sorrow,
Be Specific
In the name of timeless advice, I leave you, again, in the hands of Emily Post: “Intimate letters of condolence are like love letters, in that
they are too sacred to follow a set form. One rule, and one only,
should guide you in writing such letters. Say what you truly feel. Say
that and nothing else. Sit down at your desk, let your thoughts dwell
on the person you are writing to.”
l How to Start
It’s difficult to say exactly how to begin a
sympathy letter. It depends so much on the situation and if it
was sad yet expected or absolutely tragic. It really is about
saying what you feel. If you’re indescribably sorry, say that. If
you can’t find the words, you can say that too. In her book
Dear Pussycat: Mash Notes and Missives from the Desk of Cosmopolitan’s Legendary Editor (St. Martin’s, 2004), Helen Gurley Brown
starts off two sympathy letters in very different and equally
moving ways. The first was written to a woman who’s husband died after a prolonged illness: “I can’t believe Steve isn’t
with us—he was one of the most dynamic forces God—or
whoever creates things—ever put on earth—wasn’t his life
astonishing? The life force inside your husband was like none
Difficult to Say, Even in a Letter
I’ve ever seen in any other person and it touched us all again
and again.” The other was written to a couple whose son was
murdered: “I usually can write letters—it’s what I do—but I
was so horrified by what happened to Jonathan I just couldn’t
think of anything adequate to say. I still can’t, although I
know you must be grieving deeply and inconsolably.”
l If You Knew The Person
Let your letter be a celebration of
them and what they brought to your life. If you haven’t seen
them in years, then old memories work just as well. Perhaps if it
was a friend’s mother: “My memories of your mother will always be as warm and wonderful as the treats she made for us.”
l If You Didn’t Know the Person
Let your letter be centered
on the person who is grieving and their relationship with the
deceased: “Although I never met Karl, I always got a kick out
of your stories about him and his hunting trips. I could see how
happy he made you, and I am so very sorry for your loss.”
l Beaming with Pride
If you’ve been privy to privileged pride
once admitted by the deceased, now is a good time to come
clean about it: “I know we’ve only met a few times, but I feel
as if I’ve known you for years as your father was always bragging about you.”
Signing Off
вњ‰ My condolences, In sympathy, In deepest sorrow, Traditional
closings for condolence letters.
вњ‰ With love and prayers, Blessings, May God be with you, If
you take a religious approach.
вњ‰ All my love, Your friend, Lots of love, You can certainly
break with tradition and end the letter giving a simple token of
your own personal affection.
Write what you feel, and however it comes out is fine.
How to Send
Please avoid e-mail at all costs here, unless it’s really the only way you
can get the message to them. If ever there was a time to splurge on
FedEx and UPS to make sure your note arrives tomorrow morning,
this is it.
Religious Context
In the face of death, it’s hard to know what is and isn’t appropriate as
far as belief systems go. Megan and I were part of the same youth
group and I knew her mother was very active in her church, which is
why I was comfortable being so forthright with spiritual assertions. If
you don’t know where the person in mourning stands on the religious
plane, it’s still usually fine to tell them they’re in your thoughts and
prayers, as most people don’t take offense but appreciate the sentiment. If you know the person to be an adamant atheist, then perhaps
it’s not a good idea to mention prayer as it might upset them more. If
you yourself have no religious affiliations then it’s fine to tell someone
they’re in your thoughts, let there be no pressure to mention prayer.
Following the death of my mother’s sister, a friend of hers at work
said, “I know someone who can contact her for you.” My mother, the
last person to believe in communicating with the dead, simply said,
“Thank you, but that’s okay.”
Difficult to Say, Even in a Letter
How to Express Genuine Regrets to
a Woman who Lost Five Sons During
the Civil War
BY ABR A H A M L I N COLN ( 1 8 0 9–1 8 6 5 )
Portrait of President Lincoln first published in 1861
Often grouped together with his other exceptional writings, such as
the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address, is Abraham Lincoln’s sympathy letter to Mrs. Lydia Bixby—a widow living
in Boston said to have had five sons die on the battlefield during the
Civil War. There is great debate concerning this letter, as it was later
found that Mrs. Bixby only lost two sons to the war while one received an honorable discharge and the other two may have been deserters. It has also been called into question as to whether Lincoln
himself wrote this letter—some speculation suggests it was written
by John Hay, private secretary to the president. Regardless of the controversy, whoever wrote the letter, wrote it under the assumption
that these five brothers died fighting for their country and the letter
itself lives on—an extraordinary set of words written around an especially tragic situation.
N OV. 21, 1864
Dear Madam,
I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the
Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who
have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless
must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the
grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the
consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to
save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your
bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost,
and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon
the altar of freedom.
Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,
A. Lincoln
6 Letters of Change
If not us, then who? If not now, then when?
—John Lewis (said during the Civil Rights Movement)
Human beings are as predictable now as they’ve always been. The
constant craving for money and power has never really been satisfied
but are continually sought after. The futile hunt for these two things
accompanied by an intrinsic fear of change, repeatedly leads to corruption and the denial of even the most basic rights to countless people. In many devastating cases, people are not even entitled to their
own opinion.
The seemingly flawless tactic that imperialists have always
implemented is to ensure that the masses, or sometimes a select
group of citizens within the masses, remain uneducated. Ignorance
equals compliance. The one factor that is almost always left out is the
human spirit. The only desire that rivals the desire to dominate is the
deep-seated desire for justice. As history has shown us time and
again, when small voices dare to shout, things start to change.
If you’re like me, charity work is something you really want to do—
someday. Someday when you’re older and not working so hard, when
you have more time and money to spare. You’d really like to help make
a difference for someone somewhere, but now is the time to look out
for you. Then it changes to the time you have to look out for your
spouse, then eventually your children. Soon you come to realize that
day is not coming. No one is handing you a time ticket saying, “Okay
you’re free for a while, go off and save the world.” As John Lennon
once sang, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other
plans.” If philanthropic work is something you (by you, I mean me) really want to do, then the time has to be consciously set aside. Fortunately, there is an effective, altruistic act that doesn’t require much time
or money. It requires good intentions, which I believe most of us already have.
Here’s what you do: Pick a cause, any cause, and find (by find, I mean
Google) the letter-writing campaign attached to it—the odds of there
being one are very good. The research is done for you. All you have to do
is read, agree, and send a letter. Many campaigns have an e-mail option, although most emphasize that print letters are still more effective.
It takes two extra seconds to cut and paste the letter, print, and mail.
I’ve tried to get myself into the habit of sending both ways. Use the
form letters at first, and when you become more familiar with the
cause then feel free to articulate your opinion with your own words—
always respectfully. Make sure when you send a form letter that you
read and agree fully with everything that’s written. Send one a month,
one a week, one a day if you’re up for it. It’s inexpensive, and again,
The Nobel peace–prize-winning organization that has launched an
exuberant number of full force letter-writing campaigns is Amnesty
International (AI). AI was founded in 1961 by a British lawyer named
Letters of Change
Peter Benenson. He was reading the paper one day and was disturbed
to discover that two Portuguese students had been imprisoned for a
term of seven years because they had raised their glasses in a toast to
freedom. Benenson wrote to the editor of The Observer requesting
readers write letters on their behalf. The response was tremendous
and soon letter-writing groups were formed in more than a dozen
countries. AI is still standing strong as one of the most revered human
rights organizations in the world with its main goals to free prisoners
of conscience—anyone imprisoned because of their race, religion,
color, language, sexual orientation, or belief, so long as they have not
used or advocated violence—and to raise awareness about human
rights abuses.
I first encountered AI when I was in college and campus ministry
had agreed to work on a few campaigns. I remember thinking writing letters was way too easy to have any substantial effect. I thought
of AI again when I added a links page to my Web site—if letter
writing could make the world a better place, then I should be promoting those types of letters too, yes? This thought was followed by
the two-seconds-too-late-you-flake revelation that if writing letters
could make the world a better place I should be writing those types
of letters. AI has several campaigns to choose from, including controlling arms and denouncing the torture of prisoners. One prominent campaign that I gravitated toward immediately was Stop
Violence Against Women. The description reads: “Currently, Amnesty International is involved in an international campaign to stop
violence against women. Every day, women and girls around the
world are threatened, beaten, raped, mutilated, and killed with impunity.”
It’s easy for us to take our rights for granted. Of course we should
enjoy and be grateful for them, but we need to remind ourselves that
most of the women in the world have no such rights and that American
women certainly did not always have them. The following is the first
letter I wrote for this campaign. For the most part I stayed with the
provided form letter but added a few thoughts of my own (in italics).
AI is still working to see this bill pass.
The Letter Requesting an Act of Amnesty
January 2006
Dear Governor,
I welcome the current discussion of a “Domestic Violence
and Other Related Matters Bill,” by the Lagos House of Assembly. In Nigeria, women suffer from violence in the family: they get �punished’ for supposed transgression, beaten,
raped, or murdered. Home is where one finds refuge and strength;
it should not be a place where women suffer and fear to go. The
Bill, if passed, will help to protect women who face violence
in the family.
The government of Lagos State, along with the federal government of Nigeria, have obligations under international human rights law to prevent violence against women and to assist
women in escaping violence. Perpetrators must be prosecuted,
and victims of violence given full support. As the Governor of
Lagos State, you have the power to make a difference for these
women. Women are the world’s most undervalued resource and once
given the opportunity to reach their full potential, they will prove their
worth ten times over.
I urgently ask you to voice your support for the “Domestic Violence and Other Related Matters Bill” and undertake
a thorough public education campaign on this issue. I urge
you to publicly condemn violence against women: say it is
never normal, legal, or acceptable and that it is a human
right abuse. Thank you for your attention to this important
Yours sincerely,
New York, NY, USA
Samara O’Shea
Letters of Change
Letter-Writing Guide for Amnesty International USA
and the Urgent Action Network:
I will stray from my usual format here and leave you in the hands of
the experts. AI carefully researches each of their campaigns and brings
otherwise unknown injustices into the spotlight. You are in the safe
hands of accomplished peacemakers when you choose to write on
behalf of any of their causes.
Why write letters? It’s simple. It works.
Letters can . . .
Free a Prisoner of Conscience (POC): “I am writing to inform
you that after 6 years, 4 months, 17 days in prison, I am now free. I
walked out of the prison gate . . . with my shoulders unbent, with my
head unbowed. I feel great to be free again, to walk, once again, in the
sunshine of freedom.” —university lecturer in history and former
POC, Maina Wa Kinyatti, Kenya
Strengthen an individual: “. . . Messages of solidarity that have
been sent to me from many parts of the world, reach my cell. It
feels like every time a letter of solidarity arrives, the rose in my
cell blossoms. This is a very warm feeling.” —POC, Dita Sari,
Stop torture: “You are not dead, because too many people are
concerned about you.” —a security agent to a political prisoner,
Improve prison conditions: “We could always tell when international protests were taking place . . . the food rations increased and
the beatings were fewer. Letters from abroad were translated and
passed around from cell to cell . . .” —A released POC, Vietnam
Tips for Effective Letter Writing
Do whatever is necessary to make your letter writing as quick and
easy as possible. This way, letters will not be put off and they can be
sent out sooner. Start by making a generic file for each type of concern; paragraphs on torture, the death penalty, disappearances, denial of medical care and so on, can be copied into your working file
and edited as needed. You may find it useful to refer to the sample
passages on [page 122] to get your letter started and shake “writer’s
There is no international standard for addressing authorities. These
formalities vary according to different governmental structures in each
country. Urgent Actions and other AI appeals will usually give you a
suggested form of salutation for each official. In general, you may
safely use:
• Your Majesty to kings, queens, and other monarchs.
• Your Excellency to all heads of state, cabinet-level ministers,
prime ministers, ambassadors, and governors.
• Your Honor for judges and procurators.
• Dear Sir/Madam for local authorities, prison commanders,
police chiefs.
• Dear Admiral, General, Captain, etc. for military officials.
Close your letter in a formal style by using:
• Respectfully, or Yours respectfully,
Letters of Change
• Sincerely, or Yours sincerely,
• Yours truly,
If You HaveWriter’s Block . . .
Writer’s block happens to the best of us. Keeping a file of your messages can help give you a jumping-off place to start a new letter, by
providing inspiration. Below are some phrases and sentences that may
also help get you writing again when your mind draws a blank, but
remember to use them only as suggestions—it is always better to use
your own heartfelt language.
• “I wish to appeal to you on behalf of ______, who is the subject
of my deepest concern . . .
• My family and I are worried about ______, who is reportedly
detained unjustly in your country . . .
• I am dismayed to hear that ______ has received several death
threats recently.
• I would like to take the opportunity to call your attention to the
case of ______ . . .
• We are calling on you to ensure the fair treatment of _______
___ . . .
• . . . I hope to hear from you in the very near future.
• . . . I, and all here who share my concern, would appreciate a
reply from you as soon as possible. Our concern for the basic
rights of individuals in your country is not of a political nature, it
is simply a concern for the dignity and well being of all humans.
• . . . Thank you in advance for your time on this urgent
• . . . Finally, in view of the above information, we urge you to
act quickly to remedy this situation and ask that you inform us of
the outcome of your investigation.
I was concerned to learn of recent death threats made against _____,
a member of the United Confederation of Workers in Colombia on
August 4. She was told that she would be killed for her trade union
activity. I urge you to ensure that a full and impartial investigation is
made into the threats, that the results are made public, and that those
responsible are brought to justice.
I was gravely concerned by reports of the arrests of a number of student leaders at the University of ______ in October. I was particularly concerned that some of the detainees, who are being held at the
______ Detention Center, are reported to have been tortured and I
seek your assurances that these students and other detainees held at
______ will be treated humanely.
I am writing to express my concern over the reports of the death in
custody of ______, following his arrest in Baku on January 19. I urge
an immediate investigation be conducted into the circumstances of his
death and that results be made public. At the same time, I write to ask
you for information on ______’s whereabouts, who was also arrested
on January 19, and I seek assurances that her physical safety be guaranteed while in detention.
Letters of Change
How to Send Your Appeals
It is extremely easy to send your appeals via e-mail and costs you
nothing but time and care. A problem with e-mail, however, is that
many government officials either do not have e-mail addresses or do
not make their e-mail addresses known to the public. Thus, Amnesty
actions will not always list e-mail addresses for all government officials. If you receive your Urgent Actions via e-mail, you might find it
useful to cut and paste brief portions of the action into your own
message. However, please do not send or forward the original Urgent Action
directly to the official. A message composed by you that reflects your concern written in your own words will be the most effective. Carefully
consider how you compose the subject line of your e-mail: it should
encourage the official to open your e-mail, so be polite and thoughtful when choosing your words. For example: “Asking for Your Help
to Find Roberto Daman Lopez.” If you want to forward the Urgent
Action itself to a friend, colleague, or fellow Amnesty International activist, please send the complete text of the Urgent Action as it was
sent to you without editing its content.
Most actions will include the fax numbers of one or more government
officials. This is an immediate, fairly inexpensive way to communicate
your concerns to governments. Because your faxed message is received as it appears, you can send petitions with signatures. You can
use a letterhead that will help to individualize your appeal and make it
more effective. The cost of sending a fax is the cost of a short international phone call. A fax message can be a full-length letter since it is
so inexpensive to send (in contrast to a telegram or cable). You should
consider including your fax number in your message and request a
faxed reply from the official. If you do not have a fax machine at your
home or office, many local print shops will allow you to use theirs for
a fee. A variety of Web-based companies will send your e-mailed appeal as an international fax. One such ser vice provider is Faxaway at
FOR THE LOVE OF LETTERS (phone: 1-800-906-4329). You should check
with your own Internet service provider for others.
Problems with fax numbers and e-mail addresses often exist. When a
government official’s fax or e-mail is listed on an Urgent Action that is
distributed globally to activists in over 80 countries, you can imagine
how many faxes and e-mails begin to come in to the official’s office. This
often results in the official’s e-mail or fax being turned off for a period
of time. Officials may even permanently discontinue service for that address or number. For faxes, another problem may arise when inadequate
phone lines in the country of destination sometimes thwart international calls. A persistent busy signal or bounced e-mail message may
mean that other activists are faxing or e-mailing in their appeals, which
is a good thing! Have patience and keep trying. If you cannot get through
on an e-mail address or fax line for a long period of time, please airmail
your letter so that the official hears your concerns in a timely manner.
Sending an airmail letter to a government official is sometimes the
most feasible way of communicating your concern about a victim of
human rights abuse. When fax numbers and e-mail addresses do not
work, or if you do not have access to a fax machine or the web, consider sending an airmail letter. Ideally, your letter should be one
page and include your signature and return address so the official
can respond to your concerns. Airmail postage rates often change.
The current rate, as of July 2005, is eighty cents for one ounce (one
page letter with envelope) to most countries; to Mexico and Canada:
sixty cents. You can always check the international postage rate for
specific countries and types of delivery at
Postcards are also highly effective. Postcards cost seventy cents to
most countries, fi fty cents to Mexico and Canada. You can buy prestamped postcards at the post office. If you buy them elsewhere, be
careful about the image on the front of the card; do not choose
Letters of Change
anything which might be deemed disrespectful or inappropriate to
postal workers, government officials, or anyone else in the country
where you are sending it.
A telegram is an expensive way to send your appeal, however, it can
offer an effective method of getting the attention of an official. In terms
of cost, telegrams and cables should be thought of as a last resort, utilized because of the extreme nature of the case. We suggest that you
send your appeal as a telegram only at times when the situation is particularly urgent and as your group’s or your own budget allows. Telegram cost is calculated per word. Since abbreviations and punctuation
such as commas and periods count as words, omit them and all unnecessary words and articles whenever possible. The text of the telegram
should be short and to the point. The signature should include your
name and mail or e-mail address so that the official can respond to your
appeal. Here is an example of the truncated language used in telegrams
(also called cables).
(Approximate cost of this telegram sent to Cuba: $85.00.)
There are several companies that can send a telegram for you. You
may find a listing of them in the “Telegraph Services” section of your
local Yellow Pages directory.
Beyond Letters
Once you have the basics down for writing an effective letter, the possibilities are endless. Letter writing can and should be creative and fun.
While the largest portion of AIUSA’s Urgent Action Network is made
up of individual letter writers, all Amnesty International community
groups and student chapters receive monthly Urgent Actions. Urgent
Action appeals can be sent as:
• Postcards to officials
• Letters to the editor in your local paper
• Telegrams/Faxes
• E-mails
• Petitions
• Prewritten letters to circulate at a local farmer’s market, town
festivals, faith group meetings, retirement homes, coffee shops,
and brew pubs
• Local radio station broadcasts
Note: This guide has been printed only in part. For the complete
letter-writing guide and a current human rights case to write a letter
on, contact:
Urgent Action Network
Amnesty International USA
600 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, 5th Fl.
Washington, DC 20003
Phone: (202) 544-0200
Fax: (202) 675-8566
Email: [email protected]
Letters of Change
To find out more information on AIUSA’s volunteer opportunities or
programs, visit or call the AIUSA Regional Office nearest you at 1-866-A REGION.
How to Write the Women’s
Right’s Revolution
BY E L I Z ABE TH C ADY STA N TON ( 1 8 1 5 –1 9 0 2 ) A N D
SUS A N B. A N TH ON Y ( 1 8 2 0 –1 9 0 6 )
Elizabeth Cady Stanton with her daughter Harriot in 1856
Daguerreotype of 28-year-old Susan B.Anthony
One might think that by the early twentieth century, it’d be a given
that women would get the right to vote—the “it’s about time” attitude
should have kicked in. Not so. Suffragists and anti-suffragists both
fought tooth and nail until the very end, as they had for seventy-two
The first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls,
New York, in 1848. A thirty-two-year-old woman named Elizabeth
Cady Stanton stood up and made the outlandish suggestion that
women should be given the right to vote. The room of 300 women
and forty men erupted into shock and disagreement. I say it here and
it sounds sarcastic, but it was that extreme. Women in 1848 had no
rights. They had no rights to their property, to their earnings, or to
their children. There was no legal recourse for a woman who had been
the victim of domestic abuse. With no rights in the home, to suggest
that women enter the political arena was especially radical. The crowd
disagreed vehemently on suffrage until abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) came to Stanton’s aide by standing and agreeing
with her. Then it began.
Two years later, Stanton met a Quaker woman named Susan
Brownell Anthony, and the two formed a fast friendship that lasted
the rest of their lives. The forward thinkers fought fervently to convince both men and women that women had the intellectual capacity
to handle voting. Disappointingly, much of the opposition came from
anti-suffragist groups organized by women, to whom Stanton said,
“It is too bad that these women are begging to be left in their
Anthony remained unmarried and campaigned across the country
for suffrage and was in constant correspondence with Stanton, a
mother of seven, who cheered her on and helped her write speeches
from home. In 1872, Anthony voted illegally in the presidential election. She was arrested and tried. Because she was a woman she was
not allowed to testify on her own behalf. The judge did not allow the
all-male jury to convene—he ordered them to proclaim the defendant
guilty. She was told she had to pay the 100-dollar fine plus the court
fees. Her response to this was: “May it please your honor that I shall
never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty. Resistance to tyranny is
obedience to God.” Tragically, neither of the women lived to see the
suffrage movement succeed. They did, however, lay a rock-solid foundation without which women gaining the vote in 1920 would not
have been possible.
I’m sure you’ve gathered by now that I like to read old letters, but
it’s rare that I read letters more than 100 years old that affect my life
directly. These do. They affect every single one of my rights, not the
least of which is my right to write this book. In these exchanges, their
exhaustion is evident and giving up is a constant temptation. Thank God,
they didn’t! Ladies, thank you for your shoulders. We’re still standing
on them.
Letters of Change
A PR IL 2, 1852
My dear friend (Susan B. Anthony),
I think you are doing up the temperance business just right. But do not let the
conservative element control. For instance, you must take Mrs. Bloomer’s
suggestions with great caution, for she has not the spirit of the true reformer.
At the first woman’s rights convention, but four years ago, she stood aloof and
laughed at us. It was only with great effort and patience that she has been
brought up to her present position. In her paper, she will not speak against the
fugitive slave law, nor in her work to put down intemperance will she criticize
the equivocal position of the Church. . . .
I will gladly do all in my power to help you. Come and stay with me and I
will write the best lecture I can for you. I have no doubt a little practice will
make you an admirable speaker. Dress loosely, take a great deal of exercise, be
particular about your diet and sleep enough. The body has a great influence
upon the mind. In your meetings, if attacked, be cool and good natured, for if
you are simple and truth-loving, no sophistry can confound you. As for my own
address, if I am to be president it ought perhaps to be sent out with the stamp
of the convention, but anything from my pen is necessarily radical no one may
wish to share with me the odium of what I may choose to say. If so, I am ready
to stand alone. I never write to please anyone. If I do please I am happy, but to
proclaim my highest convictions of truth is always my sole object. . . .
I have been re-reading the report of the London convention of 1840. How
thoroughly humiliating it was to us! . . . . Men and angels give me patience!
I am at the boiling point! If I do not find some day the use of my tongue on this
question, I shall die of an intellectual repression, a woman’s rights convulsion!
Oh, Susan! Susan! Susan! You must manage to spend a week with me before the
Rochester convention, for I am afraid that I cannot attend it; I have so much with
all these boys on my hands. But I will write a letter. How much I do long to be
free from housekeeping and children, so as to have some time to read, and think,
and write. But it may be well for me to understand all the trials of a woman’s lot,
that I may more eloquently proclaim them with the time comes. Good night.
S EPT. 29, 1857
*Dear Mrs. Stanton,
How do I long to be with you this very minute, to have one look into your very
soul, and one sound of your soul stirring voice—
How are you, and how comes on the letter for the National [Women’s
Right’s] Convention? It seems impossible to array our forces for effective
action this Autumn. I, therefore, a few days since, wrote Lucy Stone, begging
her to Postpone the Convention into May next. . . . That Convention has
been a heavy burden from me, the last two months. Nothing looked promising.
Nobody seemed to feel any personal responsibility and [I], alone, feeling
utterly incompetent to go forward, unless sure of the reliable and effective
speakers to sustain the Con., could but grope in the dark. But I now hope Lucy
will say amen to any proposition. . . . I can’t Remember whether I have
answered your last letter or not. Be that as it may, I will remember how good a
word it brought to me, and how it cheered me onward. Mrs. Stanton, I have
very weak moments, and long to lay my weary head somewhere and nestle my
full soul close to that of another in full sympathy. I sometimes fear that I too
shall faint by the wayside, and drop out of the faithful few.
There is so much, mid all that is so hopeful, to discourage and dishearten,
and I feel alone. Still I know I am not alone, but that all the true and the
good souls, both in and out of the body, keep me company, and the Good
Father more than all is ever a host in every good effort. But you will see that
this is one of my tired moments, so no more, but to the Cause thereof.
I left home the [?th] of Sept., and commenced Anti-Slavery work at
Binghamton. Had three weeks of cold hard labor among people not initiated
into the first principles of true freedom. I returned home the 19th Sept. found
company there, and company came and came . . . For a week I was in such
a home whirl. On Friday the 25th I left for Collins Progressive Friends
Meeting . . .
*Portions of this letter have been left out. The remaining words have not been altered.
Letters of Change
Mrs. D. from the Committee read a paper on Women’s Rights going back to
Women’s position in marriage as the starting point. Mr. Davis spoke first. He
set forth his idea of the nature of the sexes and their relation to each [other].
Spoke truthfully and nobly of re-production, of the abuses of marriage etc,
etc. But to his idea of the sexes, he said women’s inherent nature is Love and
Man’s Wisdom. The Love reaches out to Wisdom, Man, and Wisdom reaches
out to Love, Women, and the two meet and make a beautiful blending of the
two principles. . . .
My soul was on fire. This is but a revamp of the world’s idea from the beginning, the very same doctrine that consigned woman from the beginning to the sphere
of the affections, the subjugated her to man’s wisdom. . . . The question was called
for. I must out, and said Mr. President, I must say a word, and I did say a word. I
said Women. If you accept the theory given you by Davis, you may give up all talk
of a change for women: she is now where God and nature intended she should be. If
it be a fact that the principle of Wisdom is indigenous in Man, and Love an exotic,
then must wisdom prevail, and so with women, must Love prevail.
Therefore women must look to man for Wisdom, must ever feel it impossible for her to attain Wisdom equal to him. Such a doctrine makes my heart
sink within me, said I. And did I accept it, I would return to my Father’s
house, and never again raise my voice for woman’s right to the control of her
own person, the ownership of her own earnings, the guardianship of her own
children. For if this be true, she ought not to possess those rights. She ought to
make her final appeal to the wisdom of her husband, father and brother. My
word stirred the waters, and brought Davis to his feet again, but he failed to
extricate himself from the conclusions to which his premises philosophically
lead. Well Sunday, there were more than a thousand people congregated,
hundreds more out than in doors. . . .
All day yesterday, the likeness and the unlikeness of the sexes has been the
topic of discussion . . . The discussion has been loud and long, and how I wished
you could be here. I tell you Mrs. Stanton, after all, it is very precious to the soul
of man, that he shall reign supreme in intellect, and it will take Centuries if
not ages to dispossess him of the fancy that he was born to do so . . .
I must add that many women came to me and thanked me for the word I
uttered in opposition to Davis. Said they, had you not spoken we should have
gone home burdened in soul.
Oh Mrs. Stanton how my soul longs to see you in the great Battle field.
When will the time come? You say in two or three years. God and Angels keep
you safe from all hindrances and keep you from all mountain barriers. If you
come not to the rescue, who shall. . . . ?
Don’t fail to write me. It always does me so much good to get a letter
from you. A kiss for Maggie and Hattie and Sadie and a kindly word for the
boys. . . .
The Letter That Changed It All
On January 10, 1918, the Susan B. Anthony (nineteenth) amendment
had finally made it to the House of Representatives. It was short, but
it was thirty-nine words that would change everything: “The right of
citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged
by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall
have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” It passed
by a 304 to 90 vote in the house and went on to win a 56 to 25 vote
in the senate. To become law it would have to be ratified by thirty-six
The cause was one state away from victory when the devastating
news came that Delaware had defeated the amendment. The next state
in line was Tennessee—suffragists feared a southern state would never
rule in their favor. In the summer of 1920, both sides of the movement
descended on the unsuspecting city of Nashville. It appeared as though
suffrage would lose by one vote.
One of the votes that was a guaranteed nay was that of republican
Harry Burn. At twenty-four years old he was the youngest member of
the Tennessee legislature and a known anti-suffragist. Days before the
decision was to be made, he received a letter from his mother saying
that if it came down to him, he should help put the “rat” in ratification.
Letters of Change
On August 18, 1920, Harry Burn, wearing a red rose (the sign of antisuffrage), astonished the press and the peanut gallery and voted that
women should vote. And so we do.
In the fall of 2005 I attended the Pennsylvania Governor’s Conference
for Women ( in Philadelphia. It
was an extraordinary daylong event with more than 4,000 women in attendance to discuss current issues. The keynote speaker roster was
remarkable—Governor Ed Rendell had invited Madeline Albright, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Lisa Ling to impart their wisdom and experience to a keen crowd. At the end of the day a questionnaire was passed
out to find out what we thought of the event and to assess how politically
active we are. One of the questions denoting our political participation
was “Have you written a letter to the editor recently?” I perked up
proudly and checked yes, as I had learned the week before that a letter I
wrote to Vogue would run in the November issue. I’m sure Vogue was not
the publication they had in mind and my letter did not illustrate an opinion they cared about one way or the other, but I appreciated that they
cited writing letters to magazine and newspaper editors as an important
device in staying publicly active. Letters to the editor are the quintessential forum for readers to connect with the publication as well as with the
public. They exemplify the crux of democracy—being allowed to have
an opinion and express it without fear. Magazines and newspapers show
their true colors on the letters page—a publication that runs letters both
in and out of its favor is one that truly values reader’s opinions.
The letter I wrote to Vogue was on the out-of-its-favor side—it was
slightly out of the magazine’s favor but more so out of Madonna’s favor.
Before I continue, I must come clean about what a ridiculously dedicated
Madonna fan I am. It all started when I was allowed to stay up and watch
the 1989 MTV music awards. She opened the show and my infatuation
began. I know adolescent celebrity crazes are supposed to die down with
time, but mine never did. My fixation has always frustrated my mother—
Madonna’s most vocal critic—who asked me tersely one day, “What is it
exactly that you like about her anyway?” I didn’t hesitate to answer, “Her
ambition.” I’d backed my mother into a parental control corner, “Oh,
well that’s okay,” she said.
Like all relationships, however, even the celebrity/fan relationship
has its problems. I was reading the August 2005 Vogue and Madge was
the cover story. Somewhere in the middle of the story she was quoted: “I
don’t read newspapers. We don’t read magazines. No television. At the
end of they day they’re all noise.” I’ve heard Madonna say repeatedly that
she does not watch TV, but this was the first time I saw it extended to
newspapers and magazines. Is she making fun of me? I thought. Am I not
holding a magazine? Is she not on the cover? I was talking to a friend about it
later who said she thought the same thing. It was her opinion that inspired me to write the letter, wondering if we weren’t the only two
people who thought that. I e-mailed it a few days later and in the next
two weeks Vogue wrote back to say they would print it. My letter certainly wasn’t going to move any mountains, but it made me feel better
and I was pleased that they valued my viewpoint.
As the publication date grew closer, I developed a ridiculous fear
that I would offend my idol. I knew she wouldn’t read it (after all, she
doesn’t read magazines) but perhaps her publicist would. It was unlikely but not impossible. I eventually put this out of my mind and accepted all I was doing was using the media to express my opinion. I’d
like to think Madonna, of all people, might appreciate that.
The Letter to the Editor
November 2005
I am a loyal Madonna fan and an avid VOGUE reader. I was,
however, frustrated with both as I read the August issue. In it,
Letters of Change
Mrs. Ritchie proudly boasts that she doesn’t bother with newspapers, television, or magazines, because “at the end of the day
they’re all noise.” I’m curious as to whether or not she includes
her own music videos, live performances, album reviews, and
sitcom appearances in this arbitrary “noise” category.
Madonna’s career would not exist without these media. I
agree at times they can be trashy. But they can also be informative and insightful. How else did she plan to get the word
out about Kabbalah? Her hypocrisy is off-putting and I wish
VOGUE had called her on it.
Samara O’Shea
New York, NY
Be Specific
I got a little cocky with my beginner’s luck, as this was the first letter
to the editor I had ever written. I enjoyed seeing my name in a magazine that I couldn’t yet write for otherwise and thought, seeking the
same thrill, I’d try to write to other trendy magazines. This was futile,
and none of those letters were ever published. It didn’t take long for me
to decide it’s ridiculous to write without purpose. Respond to the articles and issues that move you—those pieces you can’t stop thinking
about because of the way they’re written or what is said. It doesn’t have
to be earth-shattering; it could be a recipe you enjoyed or a project you
tried. As long as your motivation is genuine, being specific is easy.
l How
to Start When you find yourself moved, the hardest
thing to do is condense your thoughts, but your letter stands a
much better chance of being published if it gets right to the point.
Editors have the rest of the publication to edit so a reader letter
that arrives in concise, quality form is welcome with open eyes.
l Do Them a Small Favor
In the name of making it easier
on the editors, include the name and date of the article
you’re referring to in parentheses (“Along These Lines,” July
2006). It’s a small task but it keeps them from having to do
it and is undoubtedly appreciated.
l Know the Publication
Some publications, especially newspapers, allow for longer letters. Note the format on the letters
to the editor page of which you are writing, and if they’re
willing to print slightly longer letters, then give it a go. Try
not to go too far over the word count of the longest letter
they’ve run. If you find your letter becoming extremely lengthy,
it might be a contender for a newspaper’s op/ed page instead.
If something angered or upset you, don’t
write in all capital letters. Also, don’t rant and rave needlessly.
State your frustration in a matter-of-fact and respectful way.
Publications are usually willing to admit they have run something wrong, but they don’t respond well, understandably, to
aimless tirades.
Signing Off
Most publications do not print any sign off, they just publish your
name, city, and state. If you choose to sign, you can use any standard
professional closing such as:
вњ‰ Sincerely, Warm regards, Yours truly,
but know it will most
likely be cut. Only if you’re writing to Dear Abby do you have to
come up with some clever emotional declaration such as, “Thoroughly Confused in Massachusetts.”
вњ‰ Respectfully, A good way to end a strongly worded letter.
It let’s them know you’re frustrated/offended/etc. but you appreciate that they’re taking the time to consider your insights.
If it’s going to print, most publications will correct your grammar for
you, but not always. Some publications, usually facetious men’s maga136
Letters of Change
zines, reserve the right to ridicule their readers all in good fun. Again,
know the publication you’re writing to and take note of how they
respond to reader inquiries. To be on the safe side, keep your grammar as clean as possible. Remember, once you send the letter it belongs to the publication and they can do with it what they will.
In the early days of my career, I worked as an editorial assistant at a
magazine and was in charge of compiling the reader mail and choosing
the letters that would be published. With that in mind, if your grammar is plain embarrassing and your argument falls short of making any
sense, it will be passed around the editorial office and made fun of.
Just so you know.
How to Send
E-mail or fax. Unless it’s going to a magazine with a small circulation,
print letters are likely to get lost in the mix. You can usually find out
the circulation on the publication’s Web site under “media kit.” If the
publication does not have a Web site, it has a small circulation. Be sure
to read the e-mail requirements carefully, as many magazines request
you include a daytime phone number for fact-checking purposes and
will quickly dismiss your letter if they see you didn’t include one.
Missing the Mark
Don’t take it personally if your letter doesn’t make it to print. The odds
that it won’t are good, as there are thousands, sometimes millions of
readers out there and one tiny letters page. I’ve written two (genuinely
motivated) letters that I was sure would run and didn’t. The first came a
few weeks after the Madonna letter. I walked to the newsstand and Paris
Hilton was there to greet me, as she usually is, except this time she was
greeting me topless and from the cover of Vanity Fair—the only magazine I subscribe to. Not you guys too?! I wrote my strongly worded letter
the next day and sent it off. They were kind enough to get back to me not
to tell me my letter was running but rather to assure me that they had
received a multitude of similar letters. That warmed my heart, and it
was a testament to the fact that just because a letter doesn’t get printed
doesn’t mean it goes unheard. I didn’t make it onto the letters page but I
did make it into the Vanity Fair mailbag—a summation section of all the
letters they don’t have room to print usually found at the end of the all
the letters. I think I made it in there as I started my letter with “Et tu
Vanity Fair?” and that question was listed in the mailbag regarding Miss
Hilton. If it came from another reader, I’m with you, man.
The second letter I was sure would run was to The New Yorker. Now
I’m not one who walks around thinking I have any valuable insights to
lend that establishment of a publication, but in early June 2006 they
did a story on my good friend Stephen Joyce (adversary of erotic letters) and it seemed too good to be true as I had received a letter from
him about a month prior. I was looking forward to joining the community of writers whose projects had been thwarted in whole or in
part by Stephen “James” Joyce (as he prefers to be called). I wrote to
thank them for their article, told of my experience, and pointed out
that time is ultimately on our side as Joyce’s work gets closer to being
in the public domain every day. The letter didn’t run. Oh come on! I
thought. How many of your readers actually have a letter from the bitter
grandson? When the response issue did run, all three of the letters to
the editor were in reaction to that piece (The Injustice Collector, June 19,
2006) and were decidedly more scholarly than what I had written.
How to Tell Americans What It’s Like to
Live in the Middle of World War II
The last place one might think to look for a war update would be the
pages of a fashion magazine, but these letters, printed in the July 15,
1940, issue of American Vogue, offer a candid look no visiting reporter
could ever capture—as they are written by the people who were experi138
Letters of Change
encing the war firsthand. Although the United States had not yet entered
World War II when these letters ran, Americans were still sympathetic to the suffering that was taking place in Europe. Mailed from the
frequent Nazi bomb targets of Paris and London, here are the testimonies of the editors and contributors of French and British Vogue written
as they lived amidst terror and tragedy. These letters, sent to Edna
Woolman Chase—American Vogue’s editor in chief from 1914 to 1951—
serve to show that war makes exceptions for no one regardless of class
and status.
Letters from France and England
Vogue’s friends write us or telephone us every day to say—“What about
French Vogue—what about British Vogue?” To those who are interested
or fearful about the well-being of our staffs across the sea—to all interested in the welfare of anyone across the sea—these letters have a
special interest.
Mr. McMullin used to write, “As Seen by Him,” a column in Vogue on the
activities of the international set. Since the war began, this set has given time,
money, and work to France until ordered to evacuate Paris.
Dear Edna: Biarritz at this moment is a strange site . . . so many Rolls Royces,
maids, valets, and dogs gathered together under so few roofs. This hotel has a
list of people that reads like the “Grand Semaine” at Deauville in the old days.
Meanwhile Paris is being bombed. We know no details but are waiting to hear
how close to our villa the bombs fell. My chauffeur-valet leaves in a few days to serve
his country. He is the young man who drove you to the Abbey for the Coronation.
We Americans over here, who have belonged to the so-called international
set, now seem to be of a completely old-fashioned era. That stuff is so outdated.
Here at the Biarritz, people seem to be strangely quiet at the moment. But
one may be sure they won’t always be so. And then what is going to happen?
Certainly, these rich fashionables will never live like that again. John
Dear Mrs. Chase: As you can imagine, it is hard to write at all these days. I have
just walked back from Whitehall through St. James’s Park—a mass of purple iris
and all the railing taken away for scrap-iron so that it looks like a private garden.
I walked a little way with a Colonel who has just flown over from Le Bourget and
describing the bombing of Paris. Apparently, it was horribly accurate.
The anxiety among my friends during the last few days has been dreadful—
wondering if their husbands were saved or not. But everyone is calm and
uncomplaining. A tremendous fighting spirit has been awakened. If parachute
men flap down from the air, I am sure the women in the country will turn into
Scarlett O’Haras.
My little house is crammed with people; soldiers turn up unexpectedly from
Dunkirk and need places to rest for a few days. All they want to do is sleep,
they are so dead tired. The ordeals some of them went through were dreadful,
but they seem full of fun and jokes and want to fight again at the earliest
Only the big new placards are in print now, and they just say LATEST
WAR NEWS. The news bits are marked in chalk on slates or written in blue
pencil on paper—because the news changes so quickly.
Only the weather cheers us—Yours very sincerely, Audrey Stanley
J UNE 7, 1940
Dearest Edna: Thank you, thank you with all my soul and heart, you and all
the dear friends of Vogue. Owing to your immediate and generous relief check,
we shall relieve so many pathetic people. It breaks your heart to see them; old
peasants, old women, children, leading their great Percheron horses, trudging
away from their homes as in Biblical times, without shedding a tear. The whole
scene is so cruel, so deeply tragic.
More than ever, American help means everything to us and American
generosity is absolutely wonderful. Every moment of sympathy and belief in the
Letters of Change
cause for which we are fighting; every gesture, every dollar, every cent, is
helpful. To us, on borders of the Seine, and not so far from the battle, loves,
lives, and belongings have lost every kind of value. There is only one aim—
The great fight we are watching is much more than a war. Listening to the
statements of warriors coming back from the North, one gets the whole picture.
Men on a beach facing death on one side and the wide ocean on the other—
the limit of the world.
Of course, we suffer and we shall suffer more—the price matters no more.
Thank you for all . . . Solange d’Ayen
Dear Mrs. Chase: It is so difficult to edit here these days. We try to look at
each sentence sideways and imagine how it will read in the face of all the
disasters that may happen before it sees the light of day. The situation changes
with terrific speed.
We are trying to think how we shall operate if we must move to Richmond. The stumbling block may be distribution—the general opinion seems
to be that the first effect of prolonged air raids would be to disorganize
We are working on the Wool Expert supplement. And do try to do what you
can to help stimulate the importation of British Wools into America—it will
help vastly.
Everyone in the office is marvelously calm. Our art editor had to give up
his house at two days’ notice—that whole area has been commandeered for
troops. But we are all well. Love, Audrey Withers
7 If We Must, We Must
No editor can ever afford the rejection of a good thing,
and no author the publication of a bad one.
— Thomas Higginson (Editor of T H E A TLAN TI C M O N TH LY
in “le t ter to A Young Contribu tor ” in April 1862)
The epigraphs that have started each chapter thus far have been selfexplanatory, but for this one I’ll clarify. I’m willing to bet editors—
working in magazines, books, film, television, etc.—reject good ideas
on a regular basis because they’re presented poorly. It’s easy to cast
something aside when, at first glance, the margins are off, the punctuation bad, and one word, let alone several, is spelled incorrectly. The
good idea is masked behind its messy appearance and unfortunately,
lost for good. This is true, not just of editors, but anyone in a hiring
position—they overlook stellar candidates all the time because the presentation is bad. If you are said stellar candidate or are writing a recommendation for that person and know that you (or they) could excel at
a particular job, then it’s important to know your weaknesses when it
comes to written forms of communication and go out of your way to
overcome them. Have your friend the English teacher read all of your
letters and your brother-in-law the graphic designer format your rГ©sumГ©. Make sure you are as good on paper as you are in person.
If We Must, We Must
Since they are an infinite number of reasons for writing a business letter, I’m going to include the most common—cover letters, resignation letters, and professional thank-you notes. We’ll deal with cover
letters first since they are the most widely used form of professional
correspondence and still written formally, whereas most other business transactions take place informally over e-mail nowadays.
Cover letters are the first impression. Even if you have access to the
CEO through a good friend, it’s still important to demonstrate your organizational and communicative skills in your cover letter. It’s true that
some employers prefer what the rГ©sumГ© says to what the cover letter
says, but since you never know if this is true, it’s best to make them both
outstanding. The cover letter below was my standard cover letter a few
years ago. It didn’t get me the job at Lifetime magazine I was applying for,
but it did eventually get me a few job offers and some freelance work.
On a side note, Lifetime magazine folded after a year. I’m an advocate of
the clichГ© that everything happens for a reason, especially when it comes
to job hunting. Every job I have really wanted that didn’t work out has
been better for me in the long run. So don’t be too disappointed if you
don’t get your dream job—you will, and the job you didn’t get probably
wasn’t right for you anyway. Another opportunity will come along.
The Cover Letter
September 29, 2003
Dear Ms. Buchan,
I am writing to you with great interest in the assistant editor
position at Lifetime magazine. Due to downsizing I have recently left Hearst magazines as an assistant to the lifestyle editor at Country Living Gardener. The magazine’s intimate setting
and small staff allowed me to participate in a variety of tasks—
making me a skilled and versatile candidate.
My background includes writing and editing feature stories, producing decorating stories, assisting with product
photo shoots, updating Web copy, and an array of related responsibilities. I am acquainted with myriad computer programs and research tools. I have included my rГ©sumГ© along
with writing samples and would be happy to provide references upon request. Thank you for your time and I look forward to arranging an interview.
Samara O’Shea
Be Specific
But don’t be too specific. During my internship at Harper’s Bazaar, I
came across a cover letter that one of the other interns had saved to
the desktop of our common computer. It was all about her dreams. I
can’t quote it verbatim, but the first paragraph detailed how she had
hoped, prayed, and wished upon every single star that she would
someday come to New York and work for a magazine. She let the recipient know that, if they hired her, they’d be fulfilling all of her childhood aspirations. Yeah, employers don’t usually care about your
dreams. They’re interested in your skills and how you acquired them.
In a similar, more recent situation, a friend of a friend asked me to
read her cover letter—she was applying to Good Housekeeping. She let
the managing editor know that she had fond memories of her mother’s
copies of GH sitting on the coffee table. Again, that’s nice but obvious
and not necessary. Also, both of these letters were full pages singlespaced—entry-level candidates have no business writing cover letters
that long. A one-page letter, double-spaced will suffice. If it falls shorter
than a full page, which it should, that doesn’t mean you have less to offer, it means you know how to get to the point.
l How to Start
Begin by stating your purpose: “I am writing
in regards to the manager position posted on Monsterjobs.
com.” “I am writing to you with great interest in the marketing coordinator position.”
If We Must, We Must
l Name Dropping
If you have a name to drop, now is a good
time. “I heard of this opportunity through David Stroup. He
and I were in the same fraternity at Penn State.”
l Where You Are Coming From
“I am a recent graduate of
New York University.” “I’ve just returned from a year abroad.”
“I am currently working at Worthington Inc.”
l What You Can Do for Them
Next, tell them how the place
you’re coming from has equipped you for the next challenge
(i.e. the job you’re applying for): “As an associate at Worthington I’ve been able to master codes, databases, and programming.” This may be a paragraph or more depending on your
l Offer Your References and Suggest a Follow-up
Most people say their references are available upon request, but it’s not
unheard of to enclose or attach a letter of reference or two.
Then end on an optimistic note indicating contact in the near
future. “I’ll call you within the next few days.” “I look forward
to arranging an interview.” “I’d like to elaborate on my qualifications in person, and hope to schedule a time we can meet.”
Signing Off
вњ‰ At your command,
Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) signed
a letter this way as he was reporting his discoveries in the Caribbean back to the monarchs and other officials—Columbus
thought he was writing from India.
More modern closings include:
вњ‰ Cordially, My favorite.
вњ‰ Sincere regards, Best regards, All the best, Yours truly,
your pick.
вњ‰ Many thanks, Another favorite.
вњ‰ Sincerely, Overdone, but reliable.
Flawless. Yes, flawless. Never send these without having at least one,
preferably two, people (who know something about grammar!) look it
over. Grammar is language that not all of us speak and even if you do
speak it, there will come a point when you’ve read your letter so many
times that your eyes glide right over the mistakes. Even if you’re in a
hurry to send it, have someone else look it over.
The frustrating thing is the management person you send this
to probably won’t give it a good read—they’ll skim it. But God forbid they catch their eye on the word you spelled wrong or the
comma you forgot, because that will make the rest of the letter obsolete.
How to Send
If you’re sending a cover letter then it’s best to e-mail or fax. However, if you e-mail, write a quick introductory sentence and then attach your cover letter and your résumé. It’s best not to cut and paste
your letter and rГ©sumГ© because the format can get screwed up from
one computer to the next. Also, opening an e-mail and seeing an indepth cover letter might be irritating to the recipient, whereas if it’s
attached they can read or print it on their own time. An introductory
e-mail can read: “Dear Mr. Holz, It was a pleasure meeting you Monday night at ESPN Zone. Thank you for sharing your valuable insights
on working for IBM and the Dallas Cowboys. I have attached my
cover letter and résumé for your consideration.” If you have a name to
drop, you can do it here rather than in your cover letter. If you haven’t
met the person and have no name to give, then this sentence can simply state the facts. For example, “Dear Mrs. Briney, Attached pleased
find my cover letter and résumé regarding the public relations associate position with the San Diego Chamber Orchestra.”
If We Must, We Must
The Resignation Letter
Resignation letters are the last word. It’s always best to leave a job on
the up and up. Even if you’ve been fired, it can benefit you to write and
apologize that things turned out the way they did but you were grateful for the time you did spend there. If you’re giving your resignation,
you should tell them in person and hand over the typed letter for the
company’s records. If you know your company is very formal and expects the letter first, then your decision is made. I wrote this for one
of my customers (names have been changed).
January 2006
Dear Francine,
I am writing to you to offer my official resignation from Mullins
effective Friday, January 27, 2006. I have enjoyed my work experience immensely, but as my family continues to grow I’ve
decided it’s best for me to be a full-time parent. I cannot say
enough wonderful things about Mullins, about all the people
I’ve worked with, and especially about you. Your leadership
skills are exceptional and you have taken our department to a
higher level. I have also appreciated both the personal and professional advice you have kindly given me. It’s my hope that we
will stay in touch as I begin this new chapter in my life. I have
given a little more than two weeks notice and hope this time is
sufficient. Thank you again for everything.
Warm regards,
Sally Henries
Professional Thank-you Notes
Although professional thank-you missives have fallen to the wayside,
never underestimate their power. They can be the catalyst for creating
stronger business binds and can certainly make you stand out. The only
time I think professional thank-you notes are absolutely necessary is
following a job interview. However, they are certainly welcome at
other times—thank you for the bonus, thank you for the extra vacation days, thank you for the promotion. As far as saying thank you, I
still say a handwritten note trumps all others. However, I know many
people who’ve sent an e-mail thank-you following a job interview and
it was well received. When thanking someone after a job interview try
to add one anecdote that steps aside from business and gives a little
insight into your personality. Don’t go overboard with this, one will
do. The first example below is a thank-you following a job interview
(for myself ), and the second is thanks for another great year (for a
April 2004
Dear Ms. McGee,
Thank you for taking the time to meet with me and go over
the details of the assistant home editor position. It sounds
like an exciting challenge, especially working on the home
almanac pages. This opportunity comes at a perfect time for
me, and I am pleased to be considered. Thank you again for
your time and for letting me see the Ansel Adams prints in
your office—an impressive collection! I hope to be in touch
Warm regards,
Samara O’Shea
December 2005
I hope you and your family have had a good year and that
you’re excited for the upcoming one. My year was exceptional, thanks in large part, to my job, which continues to be
a source of joy for me. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but
I wanted to reiterate how I enjoy working for you. You never
make me feel as though I work for you but rather with you and
If We Must, We Must
I greatly appreciate it. I am flattered that you confide in me,
and I’m eternally grateful to you for giving me stock in the
company before we went public. As a result, my husband and
I have been able to attain an unimagined level of financial
standing. Thank you for sharing your talents with all of us!
And, as always, thank you for the generous gift basket. Happy
All the best,
How to Approach a Problem in a Businesslike Manner
This was a fun assignment. One of my customers came to me and
said her daughter had volunteered at the APT Masters Tennis Tournament in Cincinnati, hoping it would count toward her community
volunteer hours. (The school requires each student to accumulate a
certain number of hours.) She was very disappointed when her teacher
told her this type of volunteering wasn’t hands-on enough and
wouldn’t count. I was glad Mrs. Martin (as we’ll call her) wanted
to write a formal letter addressing the situation. The traditional
approach—mom going to talk to the teacher—can oftentimes be disastrous. Mom, of course, thinks her child deserves the world and
the teacher, naturally, has her own standards to uphold. So if Mom
walks in after school one day asking (sometimes demanding) that her
child be given credit, then the teacher’s defenses automatically go up
and the two adults can quickly become two children. I’m not saying
this is how it would have gone, but it’s possible. Many parents are
smug in thinking they’ll just talk to the teacher and everything will
be fine. Instead, Mrs. Martin asked me to write a letter laying out all
the reasons this situation served as a learning experience for her
A proper, professional approach to common situations can make
them more agreeable to all parties. A friend of mine tells a great
story about how her boyfriend wanted to go to a boarding high school
and his parents said absolutely not. He did extensive research on the
subject as well as the school he wanted to attend and presented it to
his parents. Impressed by his maturity, they let him go. A written
plan of action for many situations such as borrowing money from a
friend or family member will most likely have a similar effect on the
recipient. As for the community service hours, Mrs. Martin said they
were gladly approved.
January 24, 2006
Dear Mrs. Lang,
I am writing on behalf of my daughter, Jessica Martin, with
the hopes that you will consider her work as a ball girl at the
ATP Masters Tournament in July and August 2005 to count
toward her community volunteer hours.
I know events of this nature are not usually accepted, but
I assure you Jessica worked very hard and learned a great deal.
I believe there are two elements that constitute a truly advantageous volunteer experience. The first is self-discipline,
which is a must for doing any work that you don’t get paid for.
The glamour of the tournament wore off quickly for Jessica
and the long hours, extreme heat, and fatigue set in. She realized though that this was a commitment she had made and had
to follow through with.
The second essential element comes with knowing that
the work you are doing is for the benefit of a greater cause. In
this case, there were two causes. The direct cause was the
Cincinnati Children’s Hospital—the tournament has raised
money for the hospital for the past thirty years. The indirect
cause was the city of Cincinnati itself. The tournament is an
annual event that is counted on to bring in tourism and economic prosperity. In the grand scheme of things Jessica’s
contribution may have been small, but it was also necessary.
The tournament cannot function properly without the help
of those willing to volunteer. I ask you to recognize and give
If We Must, We Must
her credit for both her time and effort. Thank you for your
Anne Mart in
How to Secure a Business Deal
that Will Educate the Masses
BY A N D R E W C ARNE GI E ( 1 8 3 5 –1 9 1 9 )
A portrait of the quintessential self-made man, photographed by Marceau,
This letter is neither a cover, resignation, nor professional thank-you. It
is, however, one of the most remarkable business transactions to take
place via letter and I had to include it. Andrew Carnegie, the son of a
hand-loom weaver, was born in Dunfermline, Scotland. The family to
moved to Allegheny, Pennsylvania (now part of Pittsburgh), as a result
of the depression of 1848 in Britain. Young Andrew worked in a cotton
factory for $1.20 a week. He later worked as a desk clerk and attended
night school to study bookkeeping. In 1853 he was working as a telegraph operator when Thomas A. Scott moved to Pittsburgh as division
superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Scott was so impressed
with the 18-year-old, he hired him as his personal clerk. Six years later,
Carnegie was division superintendent. In 1865, he turned his attention
to the expanding iron industry and spent the next thirty-five years
building Carnegie Steel into an abundant enterprise. In March 1901,
he sold the company to J. P. Morgan, which on completion, provided
him with $225 million in bonds. Not one to forget his modest beginnings, Carnegie focused on philanthropy the rest of his life. Days after
the Morgan sale, he wrote the following letter to J. S. Billings—director
of the New York Public Library—announcing a forthcoming, incredible
donation. Carnegie went on to endow more than 2,800 libraries across
the country.
Dr. J. S. Billings,
Director New York Public Library
Dear Mr. Billings,
Our conferences upon the needs of Greater New York for branch Libraries to
reach the masses of the people in every district have convinced me of the wisdom
of your plans.
Sixty-five branches strike one at first as a large order, but as other cities
have found one necessary for every sixty or seventy thousand of population the
number is not excessive.
You estimate the average cost of these libraries at, say, $80,000 each, being
$5,200,000 for all. If New York will furnish sites for those Branches for the
special benefit of the masses of the people, as it has done for the Central
Library, and also agree in satisfactory form to provide for their maintenance as
built, I should esteem it a rare privilege to be permitted to furnish the money
as needed for the buildings, say $5,200,000.
Sixty-five libraries in one stroke probably breaks the record, but this is the
day of big operations, and New York is soon to be the biggest of Cities.
Very Truly Yours,
Andrew Carnegie
Being asked to write a recommendation letter is flattering. It means
the person requesting the reference thinks highly of you and your accomplishments and they’re hoping you can help them achieve their
goals. Writing recommendation letters can be fun as you examine
your working relationship with the petitioner and aide in helping
If We Must, We Must
them step up to the next level. Keep in mind that recommendations
say as much, if not more, about you as they do about the person you’re
endorsing. If you make false claims and say they’re organized when
they’re not or that they’re punctual and they are far from it, then this
reflects just as poorly on you. It’s best to only write testimonials on
behalf of those you think competent and capable. This is different
from just liking someone. You can like someone very much but know
that they don’t have it in them to be a White House intern or to succeed in medical school. It’s okay to be honest and up-front about this,
as a misleading recommendation might hurt both of you in the long
run. Luckily, this is usually not the case as most people have a good
sense of their rapport with teachers, employers, clergy members, and
anyone else they might think to ask for a reference.
I wrote the following recommendation letter for one of my customers who couldn’t say enough nice things about the friend she was
advocating. The friend was applying for a position as a federal judge
and needed several letters of reference. In the end, she did not get
the job, but I’m sure there were many factors, not this letter alone,
that went into that decision. As usual, all the names have been
The Recommendation Letter
November 22, 2005
To Whom It May Concern:
I would like to recommend Ingrid Crawford without reservation for the position of federal judge. I have known Mrs.
Crawford for the past ten years, and she is an ambitious
woman of the highest moral conviction and character.
I met Mrs. Crawford when she was the President of Junior
League—I was instantly moved by her passion for volunteering and community. Subsequently, I was impressed by her
leadership skills and effectiveness as a public speaker. I proudly
watched as she excelled as an assistant prosecutor and served
two terms as a judge on the common pleas court.
On a personal note, Mrs. Crawford has been a reliable friend
as well as a visibly wonderful wife and mother. She has a sound
Christian faith that inspires all of her decisions. Ingrid Crawford is sure to bring her spirited set of family values and commitment to any position that she holds. If you’d like to discuss
her attributes further, please don’t hesitate to contact me.
Carol Saville
Be Specific
You can go a little overboard with the adulation, as it’s not yourself
you’re selling here. Just make sure that every superfluous point leads
back to something substantial. For example, “Since she was a child,
Julia has talked about her dream to own a bookstore and I was amazed
that she was savvy enough to pull it off in her early 20s. This is true of
all of her undertakings—when she sets her mind on something, she
always follows through.”
l How to Start
Start off with stating clearly what you’re recommending the person for and then move right into how
long you’ve known them and how you met them. If you
haven’t known them that long, you can use that to your advantage, “Zachary has worked for Cold Stone Creamery for
a little more than five months now, and in that short time he
has impressed me with his outstanding customer service
skills and increasing sales numbers.”
l Mention One Flawless Flaw
Make the crux of the letter
about the person’s attributes and mention one flaw that’s not
really a flaw. I find “doesn’t like to ask for help” is a good one.
“Has been known to work too hard” or “is distracted by obtaining perfection” can also work.
If We Must, We Must
l On a Personal Note
Round off any recommendation letter
with some comments on the person’s character. In recommending them you’re saying they’re a hard worker and more
than capable of the tasks at hand, but this extra piece attests
to them being a pleasure to work with also. The phrase “on a
personal note,” is the written equivalent of stepping away
from the podium and looking someone in the eye. You’re
pulling them aside to say, “No really, I like this guy a lot.”
Signing Off
If you know the person to whom you’re writing, then it can be an informal closing, otherwise end as you would end any other professional
note with sincerely, cordially, all the best, etc.
вњ‰ I remain, sir, Your obedient servant,
вњ‰ Your truly obliged,
✉ Yours most sincerely, All per Collier’s Cyclopedia, 1892 (You’ll
read about in at the end of this section).
вњ‰ Cheers, A more casual closing. At first, it bugged me when
non-British people would use Cheers, but I have since warmed
up and find it endearing.
This letter will be read more carefully than most formal letters. Remember, recommendation letters say as much about you as the do the
person you’re recommending, so you want them to be as clean as any
professional letter you’d write on your own behalf.
How to Send
It depends on your relationship with the recipient. If you’re an old
friend or former colleague, then e-mail is perfectly acceptable. If you
don’t know the recipient, then it should be typed, printed, and formatted as any other professional letter.
If Someone Writes a Recommendation on Your Behalf
Write them a thank-you note—especially if you get the job or get into
the school or are permitted to adopt a child, etc.
How to Politely Refuse to Write a Recommendation
Easy, no. Necessary, sometimes. It could be as simple as someone
wanting a reference for an upcoming job and you’ve never actually
worked with the person, or they’re asking you to attest to their
parenting skills as they seek to adopt and you’ve never seen them
within fifty feet of a child. Naturally, this task can be more daunting when you have worked with someone and know him or her to
be less than adequate. If you’re a teacher and a lackluster student is
asking for a recommendation, what you might do is tell them you
have a personal policy of only writing two (or however many) references a year, to ensure that’s there’s appropriate enthusiasm in each
letter. Here are some suggestions on how to word your refusal.
l “Although I’ve known you for years, we’ve never worked together and I can’t give an accurate account of your work ethic.
If you ever need a personal recommendation, I could go on and
on about your many wonderful attributes.”
l “Please
accept my apology, but I don’t feel comfortable
confirming your capacity as parents as I’ve never seen you
around children. I am certain that you are wonderful with
them and will find someone who can go on about this better
than I.”
l “I’ve seen many improvements in your work this year, but I
know that you are still far behind your potential. Once you
reach the heights I know you can, I’ll be the first to write about
them for you.”
If We Must, We Must
l “Due to some of our professional disagreements earlier this
year, I don’t feel as though I’m the best person to recommend
you for the management position. I apologize if you see this as
unfair, but I think you’ll benefit much more from someone
else’s testimony.”
How to Write a Recommendation Letter for Your Offspring
A friend of mine was writing an article on how to get into college for a
teen magazine. She interviewed several admissions counselors who provided helpful tips. One counselor told a horror story of a student who
came equipped with twenty-two letters of recommendation, including
one from her mother. This, of course, is ridiculous. Anyone would roll
their eyes at a reference letter from a parent, unless the school requested
one. I hadn’t heard of this until one customer came to me and said the
private high school her daughter was applying to wanted a parental letter
of recommendation. That’s a clever way to size up the personality of the
parents, I thought. Kelley (as we’ll call her) was accepted to the school.
I’ll tell you, as I told her mother, it’s hard to write an exceptional letter
without an exceptional candidate. This was easy to write:
December 20, 2005
Dear Ms. Mason,
I am writing on behalf of my daughter, Kelley Davis, requesting that she be considered for acceptance to Jesuit High School.
Understandably it’s difficult for a mother to be objective about
her daughter, but I’ll do my best to paint an impartial picture.
Kelley is an intellectually and athletically ambitious young
woman. She has been on the honor roll consistently throughout grammar school. She enjoys being a member of the student government as well as singing in the choir. She is an avid
soccer and basketball player and looks forward to participating in both on her high school teams.
On the flip side, Kelley will put off schoolwork for the
sake of a good book any day. It’s difficult for me to discourage
her from reading so much, but her schoolwork must come
first. She also doesn’t like to ask for help. She prefers to figure
things out on her own, which hasn’t been a huge problem so
far but I’m afraid it will be as her studies become increasingly
My husband and I look forward to being full participants
throughout Kelley’s high school career. Whether this means
helping with homework, attending every soccer and basketball game, or donating time and money to charity events we
are happy and excited to oblige.
I believe an education founded on the principles of the Jesuit order will benefit Kelley immensely. She will leave Jesuit
High equipped with the tools and moral convictions she needs
to excel in college as well as the work force. She would certainly be a lively and gifted addition next fall, and I hope you’ll
consider admitting her. Thank you for your time.
Cindy Davis
How to Write Recommendation
Books on etiquette and the best ways to live your entire life were
once a dime a dozen, and one of the thicker volumes was Collier’s
Cyclopedia of Commercial and Social Information. Published in 1892, the
If We Must, We Must
preface begins, “At no period in the history of the United States has
the necessity for a cheap but perfect Cyclopedia of Useful Knowledge been so imperative. So keen is the competitive spirit of the age,
that the advantage of knowledge in the struggle for advancement is
apparent to all.” This book goes beyond standard self-help as its
chapters include Riding, Driving, Swimming, Drowning, Forms of
Legal Documents, A Full Rigged Ship, Games of Cards, the Cultivation of Fruit, Poultry, and a Brief History of the United States to
name a few. Naturally, there’s a section on the Letter Writer and it
provides these samples for how to best write or request a recommendation.
Introducing a Young Lady Seeking Employment
Dear Mr. Jones:—
The young lady whom this letter will make known to you is desirous of
obtaining employment in your city, and I use our old acquaintanceship as the
bridge to your good offices in her behalf. She has received a very liberal
education and would prove of immense value to a family whose young children
need careful and judicious teaching. She is gentle, amiable, and willing.
I trust you will be able to serve her.
I am, etc.,
Dear Mr. Jones,Your sincere friend,
R.A. Appleton
Introducing a Gentleman Seeking a Position in
a Counting-house
A LBANY, J UNE 1, 1882
My Dear Sir:
Recognizing your well-merited and extensive influence in the commercial
circles in your city, I beg to introduce to you W. James Farms, who is desirous
of obtaining a clerkship in a counting-house. He is a gentleman of capacity
and ability. His character stands A 1, and he is as industrious as he is
energetic. He considers New York a better field than this place, and prefers to
try his chance there to remaining here. He can refer to me. Trusting that you
will lend him a helping hand, I am,
Yours, very truly,
Jacob Hill
From a Young Man to a Friend Soliciting a Situation
M OH AW K , M ARCH 28, 1882
Dear Edward,
When you left Galveston, you were kind enough to promise that should it be
in your power to forward my interest in any manner you would feel pleasure
in so doing. I am now in want of a position, my former employer having
sold his business, and his successor having, as he informs me, a sufficient
number of hands for all the work he is likely to have. If, therefore, you
should hear of any situation or employment which you consider likely to
suit me, either in my own business, that of a clerk, or in any other in which
I can make myself useful, your recommendation would greatly oblige, and
be of material service to,
Dear Edward, Very Truly Yours,
John James
Asking Permission to Refer a Person
N EW H AV EN , C ON N . J ULY 7, ’82
Dear Sir:
As I have had the honor of being known to you for some years during which
period I trust my conduct has impressed you favorably, I take the liberty of
soliciting at your hand the following favor: Messrs. Sebthorp, of Beaver Street,
New York, are in want of a correspondent at London, and as I am about to
proceed there on some affairs of my own, and shall probably take my residence
in that capital for some years, I am anxious to secure a post which appears to
me in every way eligible, and accords with my views exactly.
As a matter of course, Messers. Sebthorp desire testimonials as to my
capacity and integrity, and as you are in a position to speak positively on these
points, I have written to ask you whether I may so far trespass on your kindness
as to mention your name by way of reference.
If We Must, We Must
Should you kindly grant this request, I need scarcely assure you that my
endeavor will be to prove both to Messers. Sebthorp and yourself that you have
not been mistaken in your opinion of me, while I shall ever feel grateful for this
further instance of the interest evinced by you in the welfare of
Your truly obliged,
Walter Mot t
In the last days of writing this, my friend Bradley asked me what I
planned to say about fountain pens. I looked at him blankly as I hadn’t
though specifically about fountain pens or any writing utensil for that
matter. I felt overwhelmed, as I knew I would fall short of incorporating
everything people think of when they think of writing letters. I told
him I would try to squeeze something in but have been unable to thus
far. So I leave you with his wise words, “Fountain pens are more romantic than ballpoint pens in the same way that LP records are more
romantic than CDs, and wood fireplaces over those weird gas ones.”
History and Its Volumes of Letters
Speaking of not being able to include everything I wanted to: One of
my favorite parts of putting this book together has been compiling the
historical letters. They are fascinating, voyeuristic windows into the
past. This task was also overwhelming and frustrating, as I was bound
to fall short of conveying the experience of being between the shelves
and countless volumes of collected letters. Please know that I’ve hardly
nicked the surface. I hardly scratched it. I’ve hardly even touched it.
There are innumerable collections of letters written by notorious
writers, politicians, philosophers, artists, and monarchs. If there’s a
figure you idolize who rose to the top in the mid 20th century or before, then there’s a good chance that a volume of their letters is on a
library shelf or rare bookstore near you.
Collected letters offer a glimpse into someone’s life more intimate
than any biography. And they’re still coming. In the spring of 2006 an
exhibition of never-before-seen letters, postcards, and other notes
from Anne Frank and her family opened at the Amsterdam Historical
Museum. In summer of 2006 the last of Albert Einstein’s personal
family letters were displayed for the public to see—revealing the details of a very difficult time in his life—and plans for publication are in
the works. And surely someday they’ll publish a great volume of your
letters—provided you write some.
The Key to Letter Writing
If you’ve stuck with me this long, then I owe you the secret to the
sauce. The essential ingredient in a letter that will surely make its
mark on someone’s memory is not necessarily in the wording but in
the fact that you noticed. Letters are a way of letting someone know
you caught them. You caught them being kind. You caught them being
clever. You caught them being sexy. You caught them doing the right
thing when everyone else told them it was wrong. You noticed them
when they thought no one was looking, and then you fixed it on the
page and gave it permanence.
This rings true even with letters that have angry or frustrated
content, because you’re noticing that someone stopped noticing you,
or that they don’t notice their actions hurt you and as a result your
relationship is suffering. With sympathy letters you’re noticing the life
of the deceased and the grief of the person in mourning. In apology
letters you’re noticing that you did someone wrong and are coming
clean about it. With politically charged letters you notice that there is
severe injustice going on. To write effective letters, pay close attention. This, if nothing else, is the one thing we’re all doing here, trying
If We Must, We Must
to get ourselves noticed—even if it’s just by one other person. And this
is why writing a letter can make you part of someone’s life forever.
Well, this is my stop. I get off here and leave you to write the letters
of your life. Good luck and enjoy. Thank you for taking this journey
with me.
With grateful and endless enthusiasm, Samara
The Creator: Author of life and lover of concord, thank you for the
sun, the wind, and the rain. Thank you for smiles and surprises.
Thank you for disguising life’s greatest opportunities as seemingly insurmountable challenges. And thank you, thank you, thank you (I will
never be able to thank you enough) for putting the following people in
my path:
The Editor: The lovely Miss Anne Cole, you made this project not
only painless but quite pleasant I’d say. Thank you for your enthusiasm, guidance, grace, shrewd insights and jovial girl talk. I started
with an editor and ended with a friend.
The Mentor: The counselor, the financial advisor, the psychotherapist, and (oh yeah) my agent. Adam Chromy, you are the most honest
man I have ever met. Can I take you shopping with me? Thank you for
knowing something about everything and for letting me in on the important parts. This would not have turned out so well without your
direction. I will reach my full potential working with you—this much
I know is true.
The On-Call Editor: Elise, first of all I love that you reminded
me to put you on the acknowledgments page. You know, because I was
gonna forget. Goofy girl! Thank you for reading basically everything
I’ve ever written from the pitches to the proposals and all the e-mails
to (and from) the boys. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways!
The On-Call Copy Editors: Alexa, Rachel, and Sarah, thank
you for dotting all my i’s and crossing all my t’s (and making sure those
apostrophes are correct) on more than one occasion. Thank you also
for being the on-call friends and generous advice givers.
The Surrogate Mother: Zazel, what I wouldn’t give to go back
and live in the 1960s in New York City with you. Oh well, I’m glad to
have you now. Thank you for your constant care that didn’t stop when
the job did. In my perfect world, we eat lunch together every day.
The Friends: Who unceasingly support me and my absurd ideas.
Tom, thanks for your readymade support and coming up with a financial plan for my Web site. I’ll put it into practice someday, I promise.
Miss JenГ©e, thank you for being my reliable dinner date and travel
partner and also for announcing my forthcoming book to all strangers
present. Erica, thanks for having the most amusing dating life of anyone I’ve ever met, and thank you especially for asking me to write a
letter to what’s-his-face. Lori, thank you for all the thank-you notes
and for sticking around for ten years. Bradley, thank you for swooping
in at the eleventh hour and voluntarily listening to me go on and on
(and on) about this project—and for adding your alternative wisdom.
Neal, thank you for going to see the Al Gore movie with me at 9 o’clock
on a Monday. Allison, fellow author and dynamite editor, thank you for
your advice and support—not to mention fabulous collection of Victorian etiquette books.
The DailyCandy Diva: Jeralyn, as promised, you get my firstborn. Thank you for responding so readily to a virtual stranger and
for featuring my Web site. I hope you’re admiring your handiwork,
my friend.
The Ex-Boyfriend: Jesse, if all exes were as close as we are, the
world would be a better place. If I ever accomplish anything it’ll be
from trying to keep up with you. Thank you for your unyielding
friendship and all the wonderful letters you’ve written me.
The Family: The Stroup Von Trapp family that is. If I could give
the world a gift, I would multiply you all by the millions (imagine
that!). You are an indestructible support system that every person
should have access to. Thank you for being the caring, reliable, rowdy,
hilarious, and intrepid village that raised me. As for the O’Shea side of
the family: Gerry, I attribute all pop-culture references in this book to
you. Thanks for my early education.
The Sister: Andrea Lynn O’Shea—the same mysterious “Lynn”
who wrote the beautiful letter in Chapter 1 (it’s a long story). Dare I attempt to return such a perfect sentiment to the little sister who somehow grew past me in practical wisdom? What a gift you are—how
wonderful to have someone who requires that I say nothing and still
understands everything. Now, will you stop counting and write your
first book already?
The Parents: Heroes are tall and small. Some have lots of facial
hair while others have none. Thank you both for being my forever
frame of reference for how to: work hard, lend support, handle rainy
days, and make the most of marriage. Believe it or not, I’ve been paying attention.
Those Who Have Gone Before: David Jerome Stroup (grandfather): As if my obsession with language and memorizing random
pieces of poetry could come from anywhere else. How I wish you
were here to share this with me. I miss you so much. Barbara O’Shea
(grandma): The quiet caregiver, thank you for being so selfless and
giving your family so much. Irene (aunt): Thank you for telling me the
story of the stars. Megan Louise (dear friend): I have an idea. Let’s meet
back at Lake Champion. You stay in the kitchen with Cookie and make
fun of me for flirting shamelessly with Scott (guilty). We’ll complain
about being tired and stay up all night anyway. Thank you for always
making me smile—then and now.
Sources and Permissions
All letters and electronic mail written to the author appear with full
permission of the charming, attractive, and astute people who wrote
them. Yes, even the heartbreakers.
Introduction Part Two: Letter Writing and the Internet
Student Newspaper Quote:
The Duquesne Duke, “If Love Fails Buy a Letter,” by Chris Young.
October 13, 2005. Volume 85, Number 9, Page 3.
Love Letters
Signing Off:
Davidson, Cathy N. The Book of Love. New York: Penguin Group,
Lowenherz, David H. The 50 Greatest Love Letters of All Time. Crown
Publishers: New York, 2002.
Keats Letter:
Originally published in 1878 in Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne
(Scribner, Armstrong & Co.) Available online at
Erotic Letters
AnaГЇs Nin Quote:
Nin, AnaГЇs. Little Birds. From the short story A Model. Orlando:
Harcourt, 1979.
Song of Solomon Verse:
The Bible with the Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version. London:
Collins Publishers, 1989.
Sources and Permissions
James Joyce Excerpt:
Ellmann, Richard. The Selected Letters of James Joyce. New York: The
Viking Press, 1966, 1975.
Good-bye Letters
Signing Off:
Davidson, Cathy N. The Book of Love. New York: Penguin Group,
Holmes, Anna. Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters from the End of the Affair. New York: Ballantine Books, 2002.
McLynn, Frank. Famous Letters: Messages and Thoughts that Shaped Our
World. A Reader’s Digest Book. Pleasantville, New York, 1993.
Antoinette Letter:
Mayer, Dorothy Moulton. Marie Antoinette: The Tragic Queen. New
York: Coward-McCann, Inc, 1968.
Flaming-tongue Letters
Signing Off:
Associated Press Article: Letters Show Different Side of Anne Frank:
Museum Displays Correspondence Never Before Open to the Public, by
Arthur Max. April 11, 2006.
Poe Letter:
Poe-Allan-Ellis Papers, 1803–1881, MS. C 38, Valentine Richmond
History Center, Richmond, Virginia. Available online at the Edgar
Allan Poe Society of Baltimore Web site:
Breakup Letters
Signing Off:
Holmes, Anna. Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters from the End of the
Affair. New York: Ballantine Books, 2002.
Sources and Permissions
Bernhardt Letter:
Gold, Arthur, and Robert Fizdale. The Divine Sarah: A Life of Sarah
Bernhardt. New York: Knopf, 1991.
Unauthorized Love Letters
Foster to Griswold Quote:
Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
Beethoven Letter:
Originally published in 1840. Available online at
Thank-you Letters
Signing Off:
Brown, Helen Gurley. Dear Pussycat: Mash Notes and Missives from the Desk
of Cosmopolitan’s Legendary Editor. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004.
Gold, Arthur, and Robert Fizdale. The Divine Sarah: A Life of Sarah Bernhardt. New York: Knopf, 1991.
Post, Emily. Etiquette in Society, in Business, Politics, and at Home. Funk
and Wagnalls, 1922. Available online at
Apology Letters
Mansfield Letter and Explanation of Nickname Tig:
Murry, John Middleton. Katherine Mansfield’s Letters to John Middleton
Murry. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1951. Letter reprinted with permission of the Society of Authors as the literary representative of the
Estate of Katherine Mansfield.
Sources and Permissions
Sympathy Letters
Brown, Helen Gurley. Dear Pussycat: Mash Notes and Missives from the
Desk of Cosmopolitan’s Legendary Editor. New York: St. Martin’s Press,
Post Excerpt:
Post, Emily. Etiquette in Society, in Business, Politics, and at Home. Funk
and Wagnalls, 1922. Available online at
Lincoln Letter:
Originally published in The Boston Transcript, November 25, 1864.
Available online at the Abraham Lincoln Association Web site:
Letters Requesting Acts of Amnesty
Amnesty International Letter Writing Guide:
Reprinted with permission of Amnesty International USA
Stanton to Anthony Letter:
Stanton, Theodore and Blanch, Harriot Stanton ed. Elizabeth Cady
Stanton as Revealed in Her Letters, Diary, and Reminiscences. New York:
Harper & Brothers, 1922.
Anthony to Stanton Letter:
Elizabeth Cady Stanton Papers, Box 1, Folder: General Correspondence
1856–59. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
Anthony Court Case Quote and the Letter that Changed It All:
One Woman, One Vote. An Educational Film Center Production, 1995.
Distributed by PBS video.
Sources and Permissions
Letters to the Editor
Vogue Letters:
“Talking Back: Letters from Readers” Vogue, November, 2005.
“Letters from France and England” Vogue, July 15, 1940.
Business Letters
Signing Off:
McLynn, Frank. Famous Letters: Messages and Thoughts that Shaped Our
World. A Reader’s Digest Book. Pleasantville, New York, 1993.
Carnegie Letter:
Reprinted with permission of the Carnegie Corporation of New York
Recommendation Letters
Collier’s Cyclopedia Letters:
Collier’s Cyclopedia of Commercial and Social Information. New York: P. F.
Collier, 1892.
About the Author
SAMARA O’SHEA is the founder and editor of, a
letter-writing service. Her writing has appeared in Woman’s Day
Specials, Country Living, All You,, and Pittsburgh
Magazine. Manhattan transplant, she lives outside Philadelphia.
Visit for exclusive information on your
favorite HarperCollins author.
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